South Dakota House’s call on AG impeachment may take months

Sep 2, 2021, 11:29 AM | Updated: 12:10 pm

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The South Dakota House speaker has received a hard drive containing all of the findings of the investigation into the state attorney general’s car crash that killed a pedestrian last year, but it could take months before the chamber decides whether to try to impeach the state’s top law enforcement official.

Prosecutors spent months weighing what charges to bring against Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg after it received the findings from investigators, and House Speaker Spencer Gosch, a fellow Republican, has thus far shown no sign that he’s in any hurry to review them.

Gosch said Thursday that his staff in Pierre received the hard drive late Wednesday and that he hadn’t had a chance to see what it contains. He’ll have to sort through files that contain nearly 1,300 photos, cellphone data extraction reports, roughly 10 hours of video and audio of interviews, more than 1,500 pages of investigative reports and a crime scene map that requires special software to view.

“We’re still evaluating what the process is going to look like,” he said, adding that lawmakers would “allow an ample amount of time and an ample amount of due process.”

Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has called for Ravnsborg to resign, including before he pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor traffic offenses in the crash that killed pedestrian Joseph Boever. And it was Noem who had the investigation findings sent to Gosch along with a letter from Secretary of Public Safety Craig Price in which he said Ravnsborg should have been charged with manslaughter.

However, it isn’t clear how much of an appetite for a lengthy political trial there will be in a Legislature that has never tried to impeach an official as powerful as an attorney general. The Legislature is scheduled to convene in January, and any action outside of the session would require either broad support or an order from the governor.

“It’s so difficult to know how long it would take to sort through all that evidence,” said Republican state Rep. Jon Hansen, who is a member of the legislative leadership.

A move to push impeachment charges through the Republican-dominated state House in February lost momentum after a judge ordered state officials not to release information about the crash. Gosch reasoned at the time that the order broadly applied to the Legislature, and the House passed a nonbinding resolution saying it might evaluate whether to bring impeachment charges once the criminal case concluded.

In pleading no contest to the misdemeanors last week, Ravnsborg avoided jail time but was sentenced to fines totaling over $4,500 for making an illegal lane change and using a cellphone while driving. Investigators said his car veered onto the shoulder of the rural highway where Boever was walking late on Sept. 12 and found that Ravnsborg had been on his cellphone about a minute before the crash.

Ravnsborg has tried to move past the episode, insisting he committed no serious crime and can still perform his job as the state’s top law enforcement official.

Lawmakers now have an opportunity to see the evidence for themselves. But just how the investigation files are reviewed — and what is released to the public — will be decided by legislative leaders.

Republican state Rep. Will Mortensen, the freshman lawmaker who introduced the articles of impeachment in February because Boever was one of his constituents, said he couldn’t guess when rank-and-file lawmakers would get a chance to dig through the investigation materials. He hopes each of the House’s 70 members House will get a copy of the files.

He, along with several other Republicans and Democrats, have kept up calls for Ravnsborg to step down.

State Rep. Jamie Smith, the House Democratic leader, said, “I believe there’s no confidence in our attorney general from most law enforcement agencies and that makes it very difficult to do the job he’s supposed to do.”

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South Dakota House’s call on AG impeachment may take months