OPINION — So, who ya got?
Team Kristi or Team Jason?
That seems to be the only two options in the tumultuous case of South Dakota’s attorney general, who is under considerable fire right now.
For many South Dakotans, that’s not much of a choice. Do you side with the governor who has inserted herself into the investigation of a fatal crash involving a high-ranking state official, for whatever reason, or with the AG whose careless, even reckless actions behind the wheel left a man dead?
Isn’t there a third option?
On Feb. 23, Noem called for Ravnsborg to resign. She said at Thursday’s press conference that she had not seen the Ravnsborg interviews until Monday, when she spent 10 hours reviewing the material investigators had gathered. That led her to say Tuesday that it was time for him to go.
“Now that the investigation has closed and charges have been filed, I believe the Attorney General should resign,” Noem said. “I have reviewed the material we are releasing, starting today, and I encourage others to review it as well.”
She’s right. Ravnsborg should resign. He could have admitted his role in the tragedy and quit months ago, and at the least should have taken a leave of absence.
But was she correct in order the release of those interviews? Has she contaminated the jury pool? Has this somehow helped Ravnsborg, even as people who viewed the interviews were appalled by his responses to the investigators’ questions.
A face in the windshield? Glasses inside the car? A body slamming against the hood of his car? A flashlight glowing in the darkness? A body on the side of the road?
The highest-ranking law enforcement official in South Dakota missed all that? A lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve was that unaware?
Ravnsborg has spoken publicly very few times, he has insisted he did nothing illegal. After watching the interviews, few people believe him, especially with his contradictions and the times he had to backtrack when confronted by the facts of the case.
Department of Public Safety Secretary Craig Price, who has been at Noem’s side during the public appearances since Sept. 13, didn’t say Ravnsborg should resign, but he did say that the AG had betrayed his trust to the people of the state.
“As law enforcement officers, maintaining public trust is critical. We have numerous examples across our country where that trust has been lost, and we’ve all seen that happen in other states,” he said. “Law enforcement officers are held to a higher standard. We know that and we accept that. We carry a badge that carries significant responsibilities. It requires us to have honor, integrity, character and requires us to tell the truth every single time.”
During the press conference, Noem promised more information would be released Thursday or Friday. I was in contact with the DPS and was told it would come out Thursday.
And then ...
Jason Ravnsborg’s attorney, Timothy Rensch of Rapid City, filed a motion asking Judge John L. Brown, the retired Sixth Judicial Circuit assigned to the case, to order Noem to stop releasing investigation information.
The release of recordings of interviews Ravnsborg gave following the Sept. 12 crash that killed Joe Boever were the target of the motion. Rensch said their release was “highly unprecedented” and could create “great unfairness and prejudice.”
Judge Brown agreed, and issued the order Thursday, hours after Noem promised to release more information.
Brown understands South Dakota politics. He served two decades in the Legislature before being appointed to the bench in 2008, serving on the Sixth Judicial Circuit, which covers Haakon, Jackson, Bennett, Stanley, Jones, Mellette, Todd, Potter, Sully, Hughes, Hyde, Lyman, Tripp and Gregory counties.
He retired in June 2019, but agreed to take this case, allowing other judges to move forward on cases already before them.
If they were in charge of a trial involving the attorney general, that could cause considerable havoc. So Brown was put back into harness.
He not only slapped a gag order on Noem and state employees, he ordered the DPS to take down the two videos that depict the interview Ravnsborg did with North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation Supervisory Special Agent Arnie Rummel and Special Agent Joe Arenz.
The sound you heard after that order was announced was people across the state clicking to save the videos. By early evening, they were down, DPS spokesman Tony Mangan told me.
But a lot of people have made copies, and they are on numerous websites. That horse was out of the barn well before Judge Brown got down on the state for releasing them.
Ravnsborg is facing the end of his political career. It’s virtually impossible to see him nominated by the Republican Party for another term in 2022, much less elected.
On Friday, the South Dakota Fraternal Order of Police, South Dakota Chiefs of Police Association and the South Dakota Sheriffs Association issued a joint statement calling for him to resign.
Many agencies are no longer using the AG’s office to review their use of force cases. Ravnsborg has lost a natural base of support for an attorney general.
There doesn’t seem to be a positive outcome in this for him. Does he resign under fire, surrendering a job that pays nearly $120,000 annually? Those kinds of positions might be rare in the coming years for the 44-year-old lawyer.
If he decides to hang tough, does he become the first state official to be impeached and removed from office? Impeachment appears likely in the House, where just 50% of the 70 members need to vote for it. Since both Republican and Democratic leaders supported the impeachment resolution brought forth by Rep. Will Mortenson, R-Pierre, that might be a done deal.
The Senate needs two-thirds of its 35 members to vote to convict and remove the AG. That’s 24 senators. Does Ravnsborg hope he can convince 12 senators to allow him to complete his term.
The three Democrats in the Senate will have to decide if they agree with Noem, or if they would prefer Ravnsborg to remain in office and be in charge of an investigation into the governor’s use of state airplanes. South Dakota Democratic Party Chairman Randy Seiler, a former U.S. attorney who ran against Ravnsborg in 2018, called on the AG’s office to look into her trips across the country. Seiler also said Ravnsborg should resign.
State Sen. Reynold Nesiba said Ravnsborg should conduct an investigation. Has Noem broke any laws by flying across the country to Republican Party and conservative events on our dime in our plane?
It’s noteworthy she didn’t use a state airplane to fly to Florida for the Conservative Political Action Committee conference last weekend. But did we pay for the tickets and other expenses?
Inquiring taxpayers want to know.
It’s a limited menu. Do you want Ravnsborg to step aside and face the charges filed against him? Ideally, would you like his 2001 USD law school classmate, Emily Sovell, the Hyde County deputy state’s attorney and Sully County state’s attorney, to reconsider and press more severe charges? But that’s another argument for another day.
Right now, we are wondering, do you support Noem on this? Is she right to call on Ravnsborg to step down, allowing her to name his replacement? Should she be allowed to choose what person would lead an investigation into her airplane usage?
Or do you want Ravnsborg to stick around, deal with his criminal charges while still being in charge of criminal investigations in South Dakota?
Again, there is no third option. These next few days will be all about choices, and for many people, neither one is very appealing.
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