PIERRE, S.D. – The South Dakota Senate's decision this week to remove Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg from office was an emphatic victory for Gov. Kristi Noem, whose hard-driving effort to oust her fellow Republican likely sealed his fate even as some GOP lawmakers backed him.
Noem, who has sprung to national prominence within the party and is widely considered a potential 2024 White House contender, began pushing Ravnsborg to step down within days after he struck and killed a pedestrian with his car in September 2020. He refused but was removed Tuesday through impeachment proceedings, with the Senate voting to convict the first-term Republican and then — unanimously — prohibiting him from holding public office again.
Noem pressed impeachment through the Republican-controlled Legislature, providing crucial support on an effort that at times faced razor-thin vote margins. Though her aggressive approach riled some lawmakers, Ravnsborg's ouster allows Noem to name his replacement, discredit a one-time adversary who had investigated her and claim political independence because she held a fellow Republican accountable.
Noem celebrated the impeachment conviction Tuesday on Twitter, saying “a dark cloud” over the attorney general's office had been lifted.
“It is now time to move on and begin to restore confidence in the office,” Noem said.
She has endorsed Ravnsborg’s predecessor, Marty Jackley, for the Republican nomination for attorney general, but it's not clear whether he will be her choice to fill the job temporarily until the candidate elected in November is sworn-in. Noem and Jackley ran a biting primary campaign for governor in 2018, and their mutual endorsement came as a surprising development as the House evaluated the merits of impeachment earlier this year.
Noem could wait to name the interim attorney general until after Saturday, when the South Dakota Republican Party decides its nominee for the November election.
The votes against Ravnsborg in the GOP-dominated Senate showed that senators didn't believe his account of the crash. Ravnsborg had told a 911 dispatcher the night of the crash that he might have struck a deer or other large animal and has said he didn’t know he struck a man — 55-year-old Joseph Boever — until he returned to the scene the next morning.
Noem's advocacy for Ravnsborg's removal — and his refusal to step down — roiled state politics that are overwhelmingly dominated by Republicans.
After Ravnsborg was quietly pressured to take a “leave of absence” by Noem’s chief of staff three days after the crash and later faced public calls from the governor for his resignation, he showed an increasing willingness to disrupt the political establishment by taking up investigations into the governor and those aligned with her.
In an April letter sent to House lawmakers on the eve of the impeachment vote, Ravnsborg said he would not resign in part because his office “has multiple ongoing investigations into the Governor’s alleged activities and people associated with her.”
Ravnsborg made a pair of complaints to the state's Government Accountability Board, which evaluates ethics complaints against state government officials. The board is set to meet Monday as it weighs whether to investigate both Noem's use of state airplanes to attend political events and her interference in a state agency that had denied her daughter a real estate appraiser license.
“The friction between the governor and Ravnsborg possibly led Ravnsborg to be more diligent of a watchdog of the governor’s office,” said Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University who closely watches Statehouse politics.
Even impeachment proceedings gave Ravnsborg reason to investigate Noem’s circle. When an organization created to promote the governor’s agenda sponsored billboards attacking lawmakers for not supporting Ravnsborg’s impeachment, his office probed whether the organization broke campaign finance laws.
Before the crash, the attorney general's office had also launched an investigation into the state's richest man, T. Denny Sanford, for potential possession of child pornography. While Noem refused to distance herself from Sanford and accepted several donations from him on behalf of the state totaling more than $100 million, Ravnsborg continued to evaluate charges against Sanford.
The attorney general's office last month indicated it would not pursue state charges against Sanford.
The timing rankled Republican lawmakers who were supportive of Ravnsborg and pointed out it came as Ravnsborg was forced to take a leave of absence pending the Senate impeachment trial.
“The Denny Sanford case just mysteriously went away,” said Republican House Speaker Spencer Gosch, who clashed with the governor during impeachment proceedings.
The governor received sharp criticism from some Republicans for goading an impeachment investigation committee forward, as well as in 2021 releasing videos of Ravnsborg's interviews with criminal investigators while a trial was pending.
“She does not want anyone who won't bend to her will,” said Gosch, who recently lost a primary legislative race when the governor supported his opponent, Sen. Bryan Breitling. “It cost the state of South Dakota and it cost the Republican Party.”
The House committee that Gosch oversaw recommended against impeachment, but Noem was not deterred. Her administration pressed lawmakers to vote for impeachment, and two articles of impeachment passed by a single vote in the Republican-controlled House.
The Senate's vote on the first impeachment charge — committing crimes causing Boever's death — passed Tuesday without a vote to spare. The Senate convicted him on the second charge with a comfortable margin, then unanimously voted to permanently bar him from holding state office.
Schaff, the political science professor, said the vote showed both a “victory of the facts” brought by the prosecution and a “political victory” for Noem.
Nick Nemec, Boever’s cousin who has also pressed for Ravnsborg’s ouster in the Legislature where he once held a seat as a Democrat, said he was grateful Noem fought for Ravnsborg's removal.
“Gov. Noem is a polarizing figure," he said. “There’s a lot of stuff she says and does that I disagree with wholeheartedly, but I’m sure glad she was on our side on this issue.”