PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota lawmakers weighing impeachment charges for the state's attorney general on Tuesday drilled into the investigation of his fatal car crash in 2020, spending hours questioning the law enforcement officers and a specialist who analyzed the crash.
Nearly all of the House investigative committee's work has so far happened behind closed doors, but the committee of seven Republicans and two Democrats met in public Tuesday to question the law enforcement officers who investigated Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg after he struck and killed a man walking along a rural stretch of highway in September of 2020. The committee has pledged to release much of the crash investigation files, but it was not clear when they would.
The committee has been tasked with sifting through the crash investigation and recommending whether Ravnsborg, the state’s top law enforcement officer, should face impeachment charges in the House. Ravnsborg, a Republican elected to his first term in 2018, first reported the crash as a collision with an animal and has insisted that he did not realize he had killed the man, 55-year-old Joseph Boever, until he returned to the scene the next day and discovered his body.
Lawmakers focused their attention on questioning the Highway Patrol’s investigation, raising doubts about the crash report that determined Ravnsborg’s car had crossed onto the shoulder of the highway. At times, the law enforcement officers who oversaw the crash investigation faced aggressive, rapid-fire questions from the committee.
“We're just trying to be thorough in our investigation,” House Speaker Spencer Gosch, who is overseeing the committee, said when asked by reporters about the committee's focus on questioning the investigation.
Highway Patrol Sgt. Kevin Kinney, who investigated the crash, acknowledged the investigation was complicated by the fact that it did not start until the day after the crash and that the blood of an animal was also found at the scene. But he defended his determination that the crash happened on the highway shoulder, saying he was confident that all four wheels of Ravnsborg’s car crossed onto the shoulder.
“Where we indicated the area of impact to be is accurate,” Kinney told the lawmakers. “I know that Mr. Boever’s face went through the windshield of the attorney general’s vehicle and he deposited his glasses off of his face, part of them... on the on the floor and then the other part in the backseat.”
John Daily, a crash investigator the state hired to analyze the crash scene, backed up the Highway Patrol’s findings to lawmakers, saying that he had “95% confidence that all of the wheels were on the shoulder of the road.”
He added it was clear that Ravnsborg was distracted when he struck Boever.
Several Republican lawmakers also drilled into how Secretary of Public Safety Craig Price oversaw the investigation amid the political fallout between Gov. Kristi Noem and Ravnsborg. The Republican governor had the Highway Patrol conduct the investigation, but had the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation conduct parts of the probe, in part because Ravnsborg oversaw the South Dakota agency that would have handled the case.
Gosch questioned why the North Dakota Highway Patrol had not conducted the entire investigation, “given the political nature of the situation. ”
Price repeatedly defended how he oversaw the investigation, from the crash investigation findings to the decision to publicly release parts of the investigation and his eventual public dissatisfaction with the misdemeanor charges prosecutors brought. But he also declined to discuss conversations he had with the governor.
He said the decision to release an initial crash investigation diagram and video of Ravnsborg being interviewed by investigators was based on a pledge of transparency from the governor, even as lawmakers questioned whether that decision hurt the attorney general’s right to a fair trial.
Ravnsborg pleaded no contest last year to a pair of misdemeanors — making an illegal lane change and using a phone while driving. Investigators found that Ravnsborg was not on his phone at the time of the crash, but had used it in the minutes before.
“I think some of those committee members are out to exonerate the attorney general,” said Nick Nemec, Boever's cousin who has been outspoken in his calls for the attorney general to be impeached. “And they were grilling law enforcement trying to come up with excuses that law enforcement didn't do their job right.”
The state constitution stipulates that officials such as the attorney general can be impeached for “corrupt conduct, malfeasance or misdemeanor in office.” The Legislature has never before impeached a state official.