PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — “…malfeasance or misdemeanor in office.”
That phrase is part of the definition that South Dakota Constitution sets for impeachable behavior.
Specifically, the sentence says, “The Governor and other state and judicial officers, except county judges, justices of the peace and police magistrates, shall be liable to impeachment for drunkenness, crimes, corrupt conduct, or malfeasance or misdemeanor in office, but judgment in such cases shall not extend further than to removal from office and disqualification to hold any office of trust or profit under the state. The person accused whether convicted or acquitted shall nevertheless be liable to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment according to law.”
The state House of Representatives could focus on the modern interpretation of that century-old sentence today when it reconvenes at 11 a.m. to decide on the possible impeachment of South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg.
The House Select Committee on Investigation, in a 6-2 vote, issued a report that said Ravnsborg technically wasn’t performing a duty of his elected office on the night of September 12, 2020.
Investigators from South Dakota and North Dakota determined Ravnsborg was driving his private car on the shoulder of US 14 when it struck and killed pedestrian Joe Boever at the west edge of Highmore. Ravnsborg was returning to Pierre from a political event in Redfield, where he had been invited.
The House also could argue today about whether Ravnsborg had been invited because he was South Dakota attorney general.
Ravnsborg never appeared in court regarding his driving in connection with Boever’s death. Instead, Ravnsborg had his defense attorney plead no-contest to two class-two misdemeanors, including driving outside his lane.
The House investigative committee’s majority report said:
“Attorney General Ravnsborg’s lane change violation is a matter surrounding the death of Mr. Boever’s death, but was not committed in office or by virtue of his office. Such a Class 2 misdemeanor is a commonplace occurrence and is not an impeachable offense under the law indicated above. Such a traffic violation should not serve as a basis for removing an official from office under Art. XVI, § 3.”
Regarding malfeasance, the majority report said:
““A majority of the Select Committee finds that Attorney General Ravnsborg did not commit malfeasance in office under a clear and convincing standard. In his second interview with North Dakota investigators, Attorney General Ravnsborg at best underplayed or omitted, and at worst, misrepresented whether he was on his phone during the drive from Redfield to Highmore. (Exhibit A, No. 44). The majority of the Select Committee finds that such answers were not given ‘in office’, that is, by virtue of his office or in his capacity as Attorney General. In other words, giving such statements was not ‘the performance of an act by an officer in his official capacity that is wholly illegal and wrongful.’ See State ex rel. Steffen v. Peterson, 607 N.W.2d 262, 268–69 (S.D. 2000). Even if any misrepresentations were made ‘in office’, a majority of the Select Committee finds that such answers, under a clear and convincing standard, do not rise to the level of ‘evil conduct or an illegal deed’ committed with ‘an evil or corrupt motive and purpose’ as required by South Dakota case law. See id.“
The majority report aligned with legal principles laid out in a 16-page letter dated January 27, 2022, to the committee from Tulane University law professor Ross Garber, who said he was engaged by Ravnsborg.
Representative Will Mortenson, R-Pierre, disagrees with those findings. Mortenson officially filed on Monday a resolution seeking Ravnsborg’s impeachment. His resolution argues that the illegal lane change was a crime and Ravnsborg should face an impeachment trial in the Senate.
Mortenson’s resolution further argues that Ravnsborg committed malfeasance:
“(1) Immediately following the collision, Attorney General Ravnsborg identified himself by his official title and made a direct misrepresentation to the dispatch officer, misleading first responders as to the crime he had just committed;
(2) During the investigation, Attorney General Ravnsborg made numerous misrepresentations and misstatements of fact to law enforcement and to the public regarding his conduct surrounding his criminal acts; and
(3) Attorney General Ravnsborg used assets of the Office of the Attorney General to benefit himself personally with respect to the investigation into his criminal activity.“
Ravnsborg was invited several times to appear before the investigative committee but never responded. Late Monday night, through his Utah-based private spokesman, the South Dakota attorney general sent two documents to House members. One was a letter. The other contained information from his perspective under the heading, “Evidence, Allegations and Misconceptions.”
In one section of the letter, Ravnsborg addressed the points covered by the House committee’s report and Mortenson’s resolution. It said:
“Crimes have specific elements. Therefore, to impeach under the crimes section, you would need to impeach for the commission of one Class 2 misdemeanor—if you even believe it occurred—a perilous precedent. Some have looked at an impeachment proceeding from the 1910s for guidance, and future impeachment proceeding will to the standard you established here.
“Setting such a low precedent will affect many members of the Legislature who have been convicted of Class 2 and Class 1 misdemeanors. If this is the case, when will their impeachment or expulsion proceedings begin if that is the new standard? Who might be next to withstand impeachment whether based on the merits of a case or gubernatorial fiat?
“That leaves malfeasance. What malfeasance is precisely being alleged? There have been many broad strokes, but little specificity. To date, there has been much speculation, conjecture and vague references. I am addressing multiple instances of ‘Evidence, Allegations & Misconceptions’ in a separate document.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism