By STEPHEN GROVES Associated Press
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Criminal investigators on Wednesday told South Dakota lawmakers that they didn’t believe the state’s attorney general when he told them he never saw the body of the man he fatally struck on the night of the 2020 crash.
Investigators said they doubted Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s insistence, both in public and in law enforcement interviews, that he initially thought he hit an animal on Sept. 12, 2020, pointing to what they believed were two slips in Ravnsborg’s account as he was being interviewed by law enforcement officers.
“He said he saw him. The only other person out there was Joe Boever,” North Dakota Special Agent Joe Arenz said, referring to a point in the Republican attorney general’s interview where he said that as he was surveying the accident scene, he turned around and saw “him.”
“So I know exactly where I turn around and saw him,” Ravnsborg said during the recorded interview with investigators, before quickly correcting himself: “I didn’t see him. I did not see him.”
A South Dakota House committee is weighing whether Ravnsborg should face impeachment charges for his conduct. He pleaded no contest to a pair of misdemeanors last year and has said he didn’t realize he struck the man, 55-year-old Joseph Boever, until returning to the scene the next day.
The investigators determined that Ravnsborg would have walked right past Boever’s body and the flashlight Boever had been carrying as Ravnsborg looked around the scene the night of the crash. The flashlight was still illuminated the next morning.
“I believe he would have had to see him,” North Dakota Special Agent Arnie Rummel told lawmakers.
The investigators, who were called in from out of state to avoid a conflict of interest, also testified that Ravnsborg said in the interview that he didn’t see what he hit “until impact.” To detectives, that was another slip that became “a piece of evidence” leading them to doubt Ravnsborg’s claims.
“When the story changes, in my opinion, they are not being straightforward and telling the truth,” Rummel said, referring to Ravnsborg initially telling them he had not been scrolling through his cellphone, then later acknowledging he had in the minutes before the crash.
As a House impeachment investigative committee has sifted through the crash investigation, some Republican lawmakers’ inquiries have called into question the crash investigators. The committee spent hours Tuesday drilling into South Dakota officials and raising questions about the governor’s involvement in the investigation.
Earlier Wednesday, Gov. Kristi Noem jumped into the impeachment investigation, slamming how fellow Republicans have so far focused on questioning crash investigators rather than Ravnsborg’s conduct.
“It grieves me that because of a political agenda, some legislators on the committee are attacking the integrity of our law enforcement officers,” the Republican governor told The Associated Press, adding that it was an “inappropriate” and “tragic” turn of the committee’s attention.
The committee’s investigation is happening amid an election-year split between the governor and a right wing of House Republicans.
Noem, who is seeking reelection this year while positioning for a potential White House bid in 2024, invoked support for law enforcement officers and the grief of a dead man’s family as she pushed for “some justice” in the situation.
Noem has made it clear that she believes the misdemeanor charges were not enough, and wants him removed from office. She would also get to name the attorney general’s replacement if he is removed. In addition to calling for his resignation and supporting the impeachment inquiry, she has used the public release of video of Ravnsborg being interviewed by investigators to pressure him to step down.
The attorney general has refused, and several political allies on the House investigative committee posed questions about the governor’s role in the crash investigation.
Noem said she was not involved in the investigation but stayed informed “at certain points when it was appropriate.”
House Speaker Spencer Gosch, a Republican, questioned why North Dakota’s Highway Patrol had not taken over the investigation “given the political nature of the situation” between the governor and attorney general. Other Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Steve Haugaard, who is challenging Noem in the GOP primary, delved into how Noem had used the investigative materials.
Gosch said the governor had been told “not to intervene, interlude or try to influence in any way” the impeachment investigation process, adding “it’s our responsibility to do our job.”
Noem suggested they should focus on Ravnsborg’s conduct.
“This process is just to determine if the attorney general should still be the attorney general. That’s the only question in front of them,” Noem said. She said lawmakers should examine whether Ravnsborg still has the support of law enforcement officers.
Three of the state’s largest law enforcement groups last year called for Ravnsborg to resign.
Although Ravnsborg has stayed mostly silent on the crash investigation and impeachment inquiry, he is positioning for a reelection bid despite a challenge for the Republican nomination from former Attorney General Marty Jackley. After his trial last year, Ravnsborg accused “partisan opportunists” of exploiting the situation.
Amid the political falling out with the governor, Ravnsborg has also pushed a pair of inquiries into whether Noem abused the powers of her office.