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SD Senate votes to remove Attorney General

Impeachment trial of Jason Ravnsborg lasts only a day.

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South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg and defense attorney Mike Butler listen to testimony during Ravnsborg's impeachment trial at the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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PIERRE — Jason Ravnsborg is no longer South Dakota's Attorney General.

The decision came Tuesday evening after the South Dakota Senate voted 24-9 (with two excused) to convict Ravnsborg on articles of impeachment for crimes committed in office.

A second vote on a separate article, alleging malfeasance committed in office, passed the Senate by a much larger majority with a 31-2 vote.

Beyond being stripped of his job, lawmakers made their thoughts known, voting unanimously twice to disqualify Ravnsborg from ever holding an office of trust in the state again.

What was originally supposed to be a two-day trial, Ravnsborg appeared before the Senate represented by defense lawyers Mike Butler and Ross Garber.

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Despite hours of testimony from witnesses called to the stand by the prosecution, Ravnsborg's counsel elected not to call any witnesses to the stand, forfeiting the vast majority of the four hours granted for examination of witnesses.

The removal of Ravnsborg will open the door for Gov. Kristi Noem to appoint a replacement until the next attorney general is sworn in in January 2023.

Testimony emphasizes Ravnsborg's statements

Over the course of a trial lasting 10 hours and seven minutes, the prosecution relied heavily on testimony from five witnesses, including North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation (NDBCI) and South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) agents as well as South Dakota Highway Patrol (SDHP) troopers.

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South Dakota Highway Patrol trooper Kevin Kinney testifies during Ravnsborg impeachment trial at the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Prosecutor Mark Vargo first called Kevin Kinney, an SDHP sergeant and a crash reconstructionist, to the stand to kick off testimony with the facts of the crash.

When he first responded to the scene of the crash on Sept. 14, 2020, Kinney was in charge of troopers who were collecting evidence from the site that he'd eventually turn into a map of the crash.

"There was one piece of debris found in the lane of travel, which was found to the south of the white fog line, two inches into the lane of travel. Every other piece of evidence was completely on the shoulder or in the ditch," Kinney said. "I have an extremely high level of confidence that what we have is very accurate. ... I'm 100% confident (Ravnsborg) was driving down shoulder of the road."

Despite Kinney's certainty, in recorded interviews with NDBCI agents Arnie Rummel and Joe Arenz, which were played for Senators, Ravnsborg adamantly denied ever driving on the shoulder.

After using his opening argument to tout Ravnsborg's cooperation with law enforcement, Butler drilled Arenz on why he offered Ravnsborg the opportunity to take a polygraph test, only to never actually conduct the test.

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North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent Joe Arenz testifies during the Ravnsborg impeachment trail at the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Arenz said conversations between him and other polygraphers led him to believe the results might show Ravnsborg was being deceptive even if he was telling the truth. He agreed with the prosecution that it would be disingenuous to submit Ravnsborg to a test that may return with invalid results, instead opting to focus on Ravnsborg's statements that contrasted with evidence.

"We retrieved data (from Ravnsborg's phone) that showed internet usage, email, phone logs and text logs while traveling. Jason Ravnsborg told us his only phone usage was to call his father," Arenz said. "But the pinged data showed email usage and reading websites. We asked him about that and he first maintained that he only made calls, but he later acknowledged he may have checked emails. He was only willing to acknowledge something once he knew we had the information."

In a closing argument, Vargo noted that the testimony proved Ravnsborg had habitually lied to a variety of officials regarding the events leading up to and following the crash.

"The idea that somehow he’s prevented by ND from taking the polygraph is about as honest as the rest of the story he's told you. He lies about where is in the lane. Mr. Butler has several times acknowledged that he knows he wasn't in the lane of traffic," Vargo said, noting he also claimed he was in the lane of traffic in a letter to the House of Representatives. "He didn't just lie to 911, he didn't just lie to law enforcement, he lied to the House the night before they met for impeachment."

Ravnsborg lobbied an agent seeking an advantage

Before he retired, DCI agent Brent Gromer had an uncomfortable private discussion with Ravnsborg, he testified.

Just hours after Ravnsborg submitted his phone to NDBCI agents for a forensic search of the device's activity logs, Gromer said Ravnsborg, despite never speaking to Gromer before, approached him in Pierre to ask for information regarding the search.

"Ravnsborg wanted to ask about evidence that could be recovered. There was no pretense," Gromer said. "He asked about the info that could be recovered to a cell phone, and referred to his own phone."

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Alexis Tracy gives her testimony during Ravnsborg's impeachment trial at the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

According to Gromer, Ravnsborg questioned if a certain app would make it look like he was using his phone when he wasn't and inquired about if it could access his flashlight usage.

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Gromer testified that the conversation made him uncomfortable, as he had never before been approached by a suspect in a then-criminal investigation to answer questions regarding the collection of evidence.

"Have you ever given a criminal defendant advice?" prosecutor Alexis Tracy asked?

"Not outside a criminal trial," Gromer responded.

"Would you have had that conversation if it wasn't the attorney general?" Tracy followed up.

"No, I would not," Gromer said firmly.

Defense struggled to answer lawmakers' questions

After all testimony was through, and before both sides gave their closing arguments, senators were given the opportunity to ask questions to either the prosecution or defense, as well as witnesses — leading the defense to mince their words carefully.

Sen. Herman Otten, R-Lennox, asked Butler whether Ravnsborg attended Lincoln Day Dinners — a political event in which Ravnsborg was returning home from at the time of the crash — as the attorney general or as a regular citizen.

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Mike Butler gives his testimony during Ravnsborg's impeachment trial at the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

"I'm not sure how to answer that question. Obviously he’s the attorney general," Butler said. "He was not performing the official functions of the attorney general by attending a political event, and I don’t think there’s any support in the constitution."

Seeing an opportunity to further their case, the prosecution jumped in, too.

"We would refer senators to Ravnsborg’s own statements that he is 'always on duty.' The malfeasance that comes afterwards, he certainly is acting as the attorney general," Tracy said.

When further probed if Ravnsborg's use of his work phone while returning from the Lincoln Day Dinner constituted him acting as the attorney general, Butler denied the claim, calling his phone use an "innocent act."

Following the final votes that removed Ravnsborg from office and barred him from holding statewide office in the future, the Senate moved to memorialize Tuesday's events in the legislative history books, passing a resolution to certify and ratify the proceedings.

Ravnsborg and his legal team avoided a swathe of reporters seeking comment.

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Other coverage regarding Jason Ravnsborg...
On Aug. 22, a state ethics board referred a complaint to the Division of Criminal Investigations for an investigation into whether Gov. Kristi Noem had misused the state airplane. Shortly thereafter, calls began coming in for Mark Vargo, the Noem-appointed interim attorney general, to recuse himself from the investigation. On Sept. 9, Vargo obliged.

A South Dakota native, Hunter joined Forum Communications Company as a reporter for the Mitchell (S.D.) Republic in June 2021. After over a year in Mitchell, he moved to Milwaukee, where he now works as a digital reporter for Forum News Service, focusing on regional news that impacts the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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