What to know before the South Dakota AG impeachment trial

SIOUX FALLS, SD (AP) — South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravensborg is facing a historic impeachment trial this week for actions surrounding the 2020 car crash in which he struck and killed a pedestrian. inserted.

As the state Senate prepares to decide whether the first-time Republican attorney general should be convicted and removed from office, here’s what to know ahead of the two-day trial that begins Tuesday:

Why was Ravensborg impeached?

He hit and killed 55-year-old Joseph Bower when Bower was walking near the shoulder of a rural highway in September 2020.

Ravensborg told a 911 dispatcher that he hit “something” in the middle of the road and later said he believed he had hit a large animal. The next day, he returned to the crash site and said that it was only then that he found Bower’s body.

After a lengthy criminal investigation, Ravensborg pleads no contest to a pair of traffic misdemeanors, including making illegal lane changes. Ravensborg attempted to move by accident, but a fellow Republican, Gov. Kristi Noem, insisted on ousting her.

In April, the House impeached Ravensborg on two counts: committing crimes that led to the death and malpractices in office.

What are the charges of impeachment?

The first charge center on the accident and Ravensborg’s driving record leading up to it.

“The attorney general has broken the law, and as a result one of our citizens has died,” Republican Representative Will Mortensen told the House as he argued for impeachment. Mortensen said the accident was part of a “disturbing pattern” of driving by Ravensborg, pointing to the traffic tickets and warnings it had submitted.

Allegations of malpractice include several of Ravensborg’s actions.

House lawmakers say Ravensborg misled law enforcement, telling the 911 dispatcher that the collision happened “in the middle of the road”, in subsequent interviews in which criminal investigators said the attorney general was not straight and telling the truth. Were.

House lawmakers also argue that Ravensborg abused the powers of his office by using official letterhead for a statement on the incident and later questioning a division of the criminal investigation agent about what accident investigators found on his cell phone. can.

Ravensborg has consistently denied wrongdoing and has given the Senate trial a chance to “correct”.

What will happen in an impeachment trial?

It takes two-thirds of the 35 members of the Republican-controlled Senate to convict Ravensborg, which would trigger the automatic removal as attorney general. If he is convicted, senators can bar him from future office with a two-thirds majority.

They will make the decision after convening for two days the first impeachment trial in the state’s history. It will also give an opportunity to both sides to examine and openly present the details of an incident that has rocked state politics for more than a year.

MPs have opted for speedy trial. Impeachment prosecutors and Ravensborg’s defense counsel have been allotted one hour each for an opening statement, four hours for witness testimony and one hour for closing arguments.

“It’s highly constrained, highly unusual — something I’ve never done,” said Pennington County State Attorney Mark Vargo, who is leading the prosecution.

He was initially part of the criminal prosecution team, but left before the decision to charge was announced.

Vargo and other prosecutors plan to produce in-person witness testimony from accident investigators as well as former members of the Criminal Investigation Department. The agency is under the attorney general’s watch and thus withdrew from investigating the accident, but Ravensborg tapped into his expertise as the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation investigated his conduct.

One former Division of Criminal Investigation agent questioned Ravensborg about what might have been taken out of her cellphone during the accident investigation, and another was asked about the polygraph test.

Ravensborg has not said whether he will testify.

His defense attorney, Mike Butler, will not call any witnesses. Instead he will rely on the cross-examination of prosecution witnesses as well as oral arguments.

Senators may take additional time to ask additional questions and debate articles of impeachment. They plan to vote on the decision by the end of the day on Wednesday. The Senate will vote on each impeachment article, as well as whether to bar him from holding future office in the state.

What happens afterwards?

The test results could also have implications for people other than Ravensborg.

A conviction would be a victory for Noam, who has pushed strongly for Ravensborg’s expulsion. She said last year she was “outraged” at the outcome of the criminal investigation and suggested that impeachment could hold Ravensborg accountable.

Noam will name Ravensborg’s replacement until the nominee chosen in the November race for attorney general is sworn in. Ravensborg was set to be re-elected this year, but chose not to run.

Ravensborg has argued that the governor, who has positioned himself for a potential 2024 White House bid, pushed for his removal as he investigated ethics complaints against Noam. His office is also investigating whether an organization aligned with the governor has broken campaign finance disclosure laws.

It is unclear how Ravensborg’s permanent removal will affect those investigations.

Meanwhile, the South Dakota GOP Senate is set to decide its next candidate for the attorney general’s office in a conference call in the days following the trial. One of Ravensborg’s top collaborators, David Nattwig, has announced his interest in the nomination and portrays himself as someone who can continue Ravensborg’s work.

Natwig directed the Criminal Investigation Department under Ravensborg.

However, Marty Jackley, who took over as attorney general nearly a decade before Ravensborg, is also vying for the GOP nomination for his old job. He has support from Noem and most of the state’s law enforcement community.

Representatives from each county Republican Party will vote on the attorney general’s nominee on June 25.

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