If South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg long seemed virtually certain to dodge any real consequences for fatally running over a pedestrian in 2020, it looks increasingly like he faces a real threat.
Not to his liberty, but to his political career. And the danger comes not just from his longtime nemesis Gov. Kristi Noem, but from a growing swath of his own GOP, who dominate the state legislature and face a key step next week in deciding whether to impeach him.
Republican State Rep. Charlie Hoffman told The Daily Beast Friday that he had been “on the fence” about whether to impeach Ravnsborg for killing Joe Boever two years ago, but was now determined to do so. A presentation from South Dakota Highway Patrol troopers last Wednesday that offered new details on just how reckless a driver Ravnsborg has been changed his mind, Hoffman said.
“After seeing the length of time Mr. Boever’s body was on the AG’s car with his head inside of the AG’s car’s window, and then flying off hitting the middle of the lane behind the AG’s car, leaving bone fragments on the road and skidding into the ditch at 65 mph, my mind has changed,” he told The Daily Beast Friday morning. “I now have irrefutable evidence the AG knew exactly what he hit and lied to investigators and the Hyde County sheriff.”
When reached for comment, Mike Deaver of Salt Lake City, who has served as a spokesperson for Ravnsborg, did not directly address the growing pressure facing the AG.
“Out of respect to the legal process, to those who work to ensure the system is fair and just and to the family, AG Ravnsborg has not spoken openly about the court or current proceedings,” Deaver said. “He believes in the rule of law, and in the people and processes that have led to the current, by-the-book conclusions. The attorney general has pushed forward with the work of the state and will continue to support the process and elected officials guiding this in the legislature."
South Dakota Highway Patrol Troopers John Berndt and Sergeant Kevin Kinney both said they believed Ravnsborg had left the northbound lane of travel and was on the side of the road when he struck and killed Boever just before 10:25 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. Ravnsborg had spoken at a Lincoln Day Dinner, an annual Republican gathering, in Redfield, S.D., that night, and was returning to Pierre, the state capital.
After the crash, Ravnsborg dialed 911, saying he struck something “in the middle of the road,” but did not know what he hit. It was only later revealed that Boever’s face came through Ravnsborg’s windshield, and his shattered eyeglasses were found inside the vehicle.
The troopers said Boever was on the vehicle for at least 100 feet before he was deposited at the side of the road, a leg severed. He died on impact. Ravnsborg has insisted he had no idea who or what he struck, at least at first, but law enforcement officials who investigated the crash have cast doubt on that.
“The area of impact was so far off the roadway, it takes him so long to stop, as we described,” Berndt said on Wednesday. “The amount of evidence found in the vehicle and around where the impact happened—we don’t know what happened, we just know it wasn’t normal.”
Boever’s body was not officially discovered that night. Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek, who lived nearby, responded to the 911 call, and admitted in a 2020 interview with investigators that he didn’t do much searching at the scene. Volek, who died in November 2021 while visiting a friend in North Carolina, loaned Ravnsborg his personal car to complete the approximately one-hour drive back to Pierre.
The next day, the attorney general returned to the scene and reported the discovery of Boever’s body. Specifically, he told the sheriff, who alerted state officials. The fatal crash instantly became a major issue in South Dakota and made national news.
After a months-long criminal investigation, Ravnsborg—who never even appeared in court—was only charged with three misdemeanors. As part of a plea deal, he pleaded no contest to two minor charges, was fined $1,000, paid $3,000 in court costs. and was ordered to promote safe driving. He reached an undisclosed settlement with Boever’s widow.
Gov. Noem has led the effort to remove Ravnsborg from office, despite their being members of the same party—and Ravnsborg featuring a photo of them together on his 2022 re-election website. Her chief of staff asked him to take a leave of absence after the crash, but he declined. She later called for him to resign or for the legislature to impeach him.
Instead, he’s gunning for four more years.
Initial impeachment hearings were launched in February 2021, only to be halted after Noem released two videos of Ravnsborg giving lengthy interviews with North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents.
They helped work the case to maintain some semblance of impartiality, since the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation reports to the attorney general. (The South Dakota Highway Patrol agents who have been so critical report to Department of Public Safety Secretary Craig Price, a Noem appointee who has said he believes Ravnsborg is unfit to hold office.)
Impeachment proceedings resumed during the 2022 legislative session, and House Speaker Spencer Gosch appointed a nine-member special committee to investigate the fatal crash. The North Dakota agents told the committee they strongly believe Ravnsborg was aware he struck a man on Sept. 12, 2020.
Still, on March 28, after meeting in secret for more than three hours, the committee voted 6-2 not to recommend impeachment.
But a full report from from the Department of Public Safety on the saga dropped on April 4. It disclosed further information on Ravnsborg’s driving record. Perhaps most jaw-dropping: two newly-revealed near-misses with law-enforcement vehicles, as detailed in reports from the officers involved. That, coupled with the Highway Patrol briefing two days later, seems to have breathed new life into the effort to oust the AG.
Rep. Hoffman said he has struck animals several times, including a deer, a rabbit, skunk, raccoons, gophers, a mourning dove, pheasants, and a grouse. It always was very obvious what happened, he said.
“I knew immediately what hit me,” Hoffman told The Daily Beast. “I knew every time.”
Hoffman was one of several state representatives who told The Daily Beast that the top lawman faced a legitimate prospect of removal from office.
To impeach Ravnsborg and force a trial in the state Senate despite the committee recommending against it, 36 of 70 representatives must vote for impeachment in the first such hearings in state history. That would force a trial in the state Senate.
State Rep. Fred Deutsch, an arch-conservative Republican from Florence, told The Daily Beast he, too, now supports impeachment.
“This has perhaps been the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in my life,” he told The Daily beast.
GOP Rep. Will Mortenson of Pierre has been for impeachment since the legislature first addressed the matter in February 2021. He has told reporters several times he feels the attorney general must be removed, and Deutsch said he was told Mortenson, a Republican, was prepared to call for impeachment on Tuesday. Mortenson did not respond to requests for comment.
“I expect there will be a vote,” Deutsch said. “I really don’t have a feel how the vote will turn out other than I expect it to be close.”
Rep. Tim Goodwin of Rapid City is the GOP majority whip of the House. He has also favored impeachment for some time, and said he thinks Ravnsborg knew exactly what happened that night—“beyond the shadow of a doubt.”
Even when they were not openly touting their plans to vote for impeachment, more Republicans were increasingly open about not being sure how they would vote. The ambivalence suggested the attorney general’s firewall of GOP backing—even outside of previous skeptics—might be in danger.
Rep. Tim Reed, a Brookings Republican, told The Daily Beast that he wants to see a vote on impeachment, even if he hasn’t made his own mind up.
“If articles of impeachment are brought before the full House, the wording of the resolution is critical in my final decision. I do believe articles of impeachment should be brought to the full House for a vote,” Reed said.
“The AG’s actions surrounding the accident are concerning to me and most South Dakotans, and the AG should be held accountable,” he added.
Reps. Mike Weisgram of Fort Pierre was also wrestling with the decision.
“This issue has been very taxing and coming to a firm decision has been (and continues) to be very difficult,” Weisgram told The Daily Beast. “I have read the evidence provided by the House Select Committee, saw the public safety presentation, asked numerous attorneys and law enforcement friends, talked to my legislative friends, and prayed for direction on my impending vote on impeachment. At times, I have thought my mind was made up, but as I reflect and challenge my conclusion, I recant.”
Likewise, Rep. Carl Perry of Aberdeen was struggling.
Perry told The Daily Beast he was “on the line” about impeachment—and that he told a constituent who called him Friday that he would make up his mind after hearing presentations on the House floor on Tuesday.
Less than shockingly, Democrats who responded to a Daily Beast canvass of state reps—there are eight Dems in the 70-member House—all favored impeaching Ravnsborg.
Rep. Ryan Cwach, a Yankton lawyer, served on the House investigative committee, which voted 6-2 on party lines to not recommend impeachment.
Cwach wrote the minority report favoring removing the attorney general, and said he believes all Democrats will vote to impeach Ravnsborg.
Rep. Shawn Bordeaux of Mission, who represents District 26A, said he favored impeachment—but was not optimistic Ravnsborg would face that penalty.
“I am guessing the House won’t impeach the AG. I do support impeachment,” Bordeaux said. “I have been open to hearing any info on the issue and have waited to make a decision, so I haven’t been on either side. I am not sure about the other House members and I am not lobbying anyone. Recent reports of the driving record and video of him being pulled over won’t help him I am sure, and it does help to see how he behaves overall.“
One thing that could actually help the attorney general is a separate battle between South Dakota Republicans, with Gov. Noem and Speaker Spencer Gosch engaging in a very public feud.
“The contingent of Republicans who have consistently opposed Gov. Noem’s agenda may oppose impeachment as well, since she supports it,” Rep. Jennifer Keintz, a Democrat from Eden, told The Daily Beast.
That is, the probe of a top law-enforcement official seeming to play fast and loose with the law is not playing out in the abstract. It is just one front in a sprawling series of internecine GOP feuds in a state that effectively operates under one-party rule.
But Rep. Goodwin, the longtime GOP impeachment backer, was bullish.
“We get 28 [Republicans] and we’re good to go,”Goodwin told The Daily Beast during a phone interview Thursday. “I hope we will. I think it’s an easy decision, a no-brainer.”