South Dakota AG impeachment investigation begins in secrecy

South Dakota lawmakers are meeting behind closed doors as they launch an impeachment investigation into the state attorney general for his conduct surrounding a fatal car crash last year

Via AP news wire
Tuesday 28 December 2021 18:14
South Dakota Attorney General Impeachment
South Dakota Attorney General Impeachment

South Dakota lawmakers met behind closed doors on Tuesday as they launched an impeachment investigation into the state attorney general for his conduct surrounding a fatal car crash last year.

The House Speaker Republican Spencer Gosch, had pledged a transparent process as a committee that he appointed considers whether to recommend Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg's impeachment. But it took just four minutes on Tuesday for the committee — made of seven Republicans and two Democrats — to take an oath, then move into a private executive session with the attorney hired to guide the inquiry.

Lawmakers planned to take formal action that will lay out the scope of their investigation during a public session slated for Wednesday.

Ravnsborg, a Republican elected to his first term in 2018, pleaded no contest in August to a pair of misdemeanors in the crash that killed Joseph Boever. The 55-year-old man was walking along a rural stretch of highway in September 2020 when Ravnsborg struck him with his car. Ravnsborg first reported the crash as a collision with an animal. He has insisted that he did not realize he had killed a man until he returned to the scene the next day and discovered Boever's body.

Gov. Kristi Noem a fellow Republican, has called for Ravnsborg's ouster, and her Secretary of Public Safety, who oversaw the crash investigation, has said he believes the attorney general should have faced a manslaughter charge. The governor gave Gosch a copy of the crash investigation, which lawmakers plan to delve into as they weigh whether to bring impeachment charges.

Lawmakers have said a priority will be to determine what an impeachable offense is in South Dakota. The state constitution stipulates that officials such as the attorney general can be impeached for “corrupt conduct, malfeasance or misdemeanor in office.” The Legislature has never before impeached a state official.

If the investigative committee recommends impeachment charges be brought against Ravnsborg and a majority of the House were to approve the charges, Ravnsborg would then face a trial in the Senate It would take a two-thirds majority of the Senate to convict and remove him from office.

A spokesman for Ravnsborg did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Gosch indicated Tuesday's private meeting was held under “attorney and client privilege." State law allows government bodies to meet in executive sessions to consult with legal counsel, and to discuss the “qualifications, competence, performance, character or fitness of any public officer.” Any official action must be made in an open meeting.

The House voted in November to make public the material that the investigative committee uses, with the exception of redacted confidential and “nonrelevant information.”

But the impeachment inquiry has been held under a cloud of secrecy: Gosch has refused to divulge the names of the 49 House members who petitioned for a special legislative session to launch the committee in the first place. He and the Legislature's support staff are facing a lawsuit from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and the South Dakota Newspaper Association to formally release the names.

Even though those have already been released — by the Senate Pro Tempore, and against Gosch's wishes — the media organizations have pressed the lawsuit in order to establish that petitions for a special legislative session are public record.

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