Jason Ravnsborg just won’t quit.
In the 647 days since he fatally struck a man with his car, Ravnsborg, South Dakota’s attorney general, has faced near-endless calls to go away –– from county sheriffs and police groups, Republicans and Democrats, in letters to the editor and on billboards. A poll last month found that 70 percent of voters want him out, and in April, Ravnsborg became the first official in state history to ever be impeached.
And yet, Ravnsborg has only dug in his heels, refusing to retreat to the comfort of obscurity. Even his allies are baffled by the defiance.
“Some of his closest friends have asked him to step down, and still he resists,” says South Dakota House Speaker Spencer Gosch, who voted against impeaching Ravnsborg. “I honestly couldn’t tell you why.”
The decision, for now, is out of Ravnsborg’s hands. An impeachment trial will kick off Tuesday at the state capitol in Pierre to determine whether he is removed from office, the denouement of a nearly two-year saga that has cast a shadow over South Dakota’s politics and fueled an increasingly bitter standoff between the governor and Republican lawmakers.
Ravnsborg’s crash in 2020 came as Gov. Kristi Noem’s hands-off, masks-off approach to Covid was making her a national political figure, and the governor has been pushing for him to step aside pretty much ever since. She goaded prosecutors to bring charges and pressured lawmakers to move forward with impeachment. If Ravnsborg is convicted at this week’s trial, few will be more pleased with the outcome than Noem.
The bizarre nature of Ravnsborg’s crash brought a rare blitz of national media attention to South Dakota, with much of the scrutiny centered around his version of events. A narrative hardened quickly: By killing a man with his car and leaving the scene, Ravnsborg became an instant pariah to much of the public, someone who even Noem could no longer back.
Nearly two years later, the story looks less straight-forward.
While his political career seems irreparably damaged, his party has not turned on him completely. In the April vote, more than half of the Republicans in the state House voted against impeachment, despite Noem’s prodding. Many of those legislators have their doubts that Noem is pushing to remove Ravnsborg for virtuous reasons.
Ravnsborg’s crash came as his office was taking on one of South Dakota’s major power centers with a child-pornography investigation of the state’s richest person, T. Denny Sanford. And at the time of his impeachment, Ravnsborg said his office had multiple investigations into Noem’s alleged activities.
Noem, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this story “out of respect for the Senate’s role as a jury in the impeachment trial.”
In the legislature, where Noem has more than a few enemies, there is open speculation that the crash is nothing more than a pretext to oust someone who has defied the state’s political establishment.
“Why is Governor Noem going to the mat to try and get this guy out?” says Republican state Rep. Tom Pischke. “What does Jason have on her?”
Officially, Ravnsborg was impeached for “certain crimes and for malfeasance in office.” The less technical reason is that many simply believe he is full of shit.
Ravnsborg, who declined to comment on the record for this story, was driving back to Pierre on the night of Sept. 12, 2020, when, as he said on the subsequent 911 call, he “hit something.” The dispatcher eventually asked Ravnsborg if he thought he collided with a deer. “I have no idea,” he said. “Yeah, it could be.”
It was no deer, of course. In fact, Ravnsborg’s 2011 Ford Taurus had slammed into the body of a 55-year-old man named Joe Boever, who was walking alongside the rural highway with a flashlight.
Both Ravnsborg and the county sheriff who responded to the scene said they did not see Boever’s body that night. The sheriff loaned his personal car to Ravnsborg, whose own damaged vehicle needed to be towed, and he resumed his journey to Pierre. When he drove back the following day to return the sheriff’s car, Ravnsborg and his chief of staff first stopped by the scene of the crash. It was only then, Ravnsborg claims, that he discovered the body of Boever.
“It’s very evident in my mind that he knew he hit a body that night, and then went home and left him there until the next day,” says Rep. Tim Goodwin, a Republican who voted in favor of impeachment.
The skepticism surrounding Ravnsborg’s account has united Noem with her Democratic rivals.
“I don’t believe he ever thought he hit a deer,” says Democrat Jamie Smith, the minority leader in the state House who is challenging Noem in this year’s gubernatorial race.
The two prosecutors who led the criminal investigation ultimately only charged Ravnsborg with three misdemeanors, saying his actions did not meet the threshold necessary for a manslaughter charge. And although the prevailing assumption has been that Ravnsborg was distracted at the time of the crash, the prosecutors balked at that, saying he locked his phone a minute prior to impact.
Ravnsborg was charged with driving while using a mobile device, improper lane driving, and careless driving, but a plea deal ensured that he avoided a trial. The state dropped the careless-driving charge while Ravnsborg pleaded no contest to the other two, paying a $500 fine for each.
The outcome deeply upset Boever’s family. At the sentencing hearing last August, his widow, Jenny Boever, lamented that Ravnsborg avoided jail time. (Ravnsborg later reached a settlement with her in a civil lawsuit.) Boever’s sister said Ravnsborg failed to show remorse, and ripped him for not attending the hearing. The relatively light sentence solidified a widely held belief among South Dakotans that their leaders and government are not above board. Locals often talk about a “good old boy network” that operates with impunity in Pierre, hurtling from one high-profile position to the next while enriching and protecting their cronies.
But Ravnsborg, who came to power as a plucky outsider, never really fit that profile.
“Jason Ravnsborg is not a member of the good old boy network,” says state Rep. Tony Randolph, who voted against impeachment. “If he was, this wouldn’t be happening.”
A native of Iowa, Ravnsborg was elected AG in 2018 as a relative unknown. While rivals poked at his scant experience in the courtroom, Ravnsborg pounded the pavement, hitting every stop on the rubber-chicken circuit.
In a letter to legislators on the night before the impeachment vote in April, Ravnsborg pointed to scandals that ensnared previous governors and attorneys general in South Dakota as his reason for seeking the office four years ago: the state’s abuse of the EB-5 visa program, which led to the mysterious suicide of a cabinet secretary, and its mishandling of federal grant money earmarked for Native American students in South Dakota, which led to a strange murder-suicide involving the leading figure and his family.
“We needed someone to stand up and fight the special interests that want to dominate Pierre,” Ravnsborg said in the letter.
A “good old boy” also probably wouldn’t cross Sanford, a billionaire credit-card magnate and colossal figure in the state. “This might sound crazy,” Pischke says, as he theorized why there was such a swift mobilization against Ravnsborg among the state’s political establishment, “but is it about Denny Sanford?” Pischke was hardly the only legislator I spoke to who suggested a possible connection there.
The state’s most prolific benefactor, Sanford’s largess is visible throughout South Dakota; his name adorns numerous buildings, and his likeness is immortalized in bronze. He has also been a frequent donor of Republican politicians in the state and elsewhere.
Two weeks before Ravnsborg’s crash, ProPublica broke the news that the attorney general’s Division of Criminal Investigation had obtained search warrants to investigate Sanford for possible possession of child pornography.
The state’s investigation ended abruptly on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, when the attorney general’s office said it found “no prosecutable offenses” against Sanford in South Dakota. (It isn’t clear if Sanford is being investigated in other jurisdictions.)
The decision, notably, did not come from Ravnsborg, who was temporarily removed from office following his impeachment in April. “I definitely have my concerns,” Gosch says of the end to the Sanford investigation. “I don’t need to be a rocket scientist to connect those dots.”
Sanford has been represented by Marty Jackley, a former attorney general currently running to replace Ravnsborg in this year’s election. (Ravnsborg said earlier this month that he will not seek a second term.)
From the beginning, the billionaire’s legal team has been determined to keep details of the case under wraps, waging battle in the courts with both ProPublica and the Argus Leader, South Dakota’s largest newspaper, over the release of records from the investigation.
“I can’t tell you how much contempt I have for this whole operation. Here we have a man who’s been representing T. Denny Sanford in this investigation and has been actively running for attorney general,” says Jon Arneson, an attorney for the Argus Leader. “That really smells.”
On Thursday, a judge in South Dakota ruled that the affidavits, which served as the basis for the search warrants, should be unsealed now that the state’s investigation is over. They remain under seal as Sanford considers an appeal.
Jackley declined to comment on the latest development in the Sanford investigation. “You’d have to talk to the attorney general about that as it was their announcement about there not being any charges,” he says.
Arneson, meanwhile, is unable to hide his disgust with the Sanford defense, calling Jackley’s representation of the billionaire “incestuous.”
A lifelong South Dakotan who has represented the Argus for more than 40 years, Arneson spoke with the exasperation of someone well-acquainted with the state’s politics. “In South Dakota, these people don’t give a shit,” Arneson says. “There’s a handful of people who think they can do whatever the hell they want.”
Ravnsborg has also taken on Noem, acting on a pair of ethics complaints against her — one concerning allegations that she misused the state airplane, and the other regarding a strange case of meddling in her daughter’s application to be a certified real-estate appraiser.
A source close to Noem says she believes Ravnsborg has only pursued those cases because of her repeated calls for his resignation and impeachment. “She feels her power and authority in the state is being challenged by Jason not resigning and trying to ride this out,” the source says.
Noem expressed her disappointment in the prosecutors at the conclusion of the criminal case, saying she was “outraged” at the result of Ravnsborg’s plea. She then set her sights on impeachment, calling on Gosch to take up articles that had been put on ice until the prosecution had finished.
Noem has had a contentious relationship with a number of Republican legislators throughout her first term, particularly Gosch, and the impeachment inquiry quickly emerged as a new source of acrimony. From the jump, Noem and Gosch clashed over what evidence the impeachment committee would consider, with the governor lobbying the panel to review a report prepared by one of her cabinet secretaries. When that same cabinet secretary sent Gosch a public letter detailing more information related to Ravnsborg’s crash, the impeachment committee fired back with a cease-and-desist letter. Gosch called it a “disgusting disregard for due process,” saying it was designed to influence public opinion. Noem said Gosch was “protecting” Ravnsborg.
The committee, which Gosch presided over, offered its formal recommendation against impeachment in late March, rankling Noem further. Prior to the recommendation, Gosch and other members of the committee had been singled out in a series of billboards calling for Ravnsborg’s impeachment. The billboards were paid for by a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Noem’s agenda, and her campaign denied any involvement.
After the recommendation from the committee, Noem accused Gosch of running cover for Ravnsborg and “attempting to distract from their decision by blaming me for their inaction.”
Noem urged the full House to “do the right thing” and impeach Ravnsborg. In the lead-up to the vote, the governor’s team applied a full-court press on members.
“There was a lot of political pressure,” Gosch says of the vote. “Many of the legislators told me they were reached out to by the administration.”
Despite all that, the outcome was far from a given, and the final vote of 36-31 in favor of impeachment captures just how much the case has divided the GOP-dominated legislature.
While the public has largely turned on him, Ravnsborg still has his share of defenders within the state capitol. The 31 “no” votes all came from Republicans, outnumbering the 28 GOP members who voted for impeachment.
For some members, the decision came down to the wire. Rep. Ryan Cwach says he watched one legislator switch her vote several times before finally landing on “yes.”
“I knew it was going to be close, but I honestly thought the House would vote not to impeach,” says Cwach, one of only eight Democrats in the House, all of whom voted for impeachment. “I was shocked by it, and still am shocked by it.”
Ravnsborg is not expected to testify at this week’s impeachment trial. He may not be seeking reelection, but he appears determined to at least see out the remaining six months of his term. It would deny Noem not only the chance to pick his replacement, but also a political victory.
“If Jason doesn’t get removed,” the source close to Noem says, “it’s a major hit for her.”