Ravnsborg’s 11th-hour letter ‘pushed me to a yes’ on impeachment, Koth says, despite first leaning no
In a last minute letter to the House of Representatives, Ravnsborg attempted to tell lawmakers justice had been served, and that he need not be impeached. That letter is a one reason Rep. Lance Koth, R-Mitchell, changed his mind and voted to impeach.
PIERRE, S.D. — The South Dakota Attorney General's letter to lawmakers ahead of an impeachment vote did, in fact, provide a push.
It pushed a Mitchell legislator to vote for the impeachment of Jason Ravnsborg.
“I was originally leaning toward not impeaching,” said Rep. Lance Koth, R-Mitchell, “but then what really pushed me to a yes vote was when I received the email from the attorney general late on Monday night.”
Koth, who has served in the South Dakota House of Representatives since January 2019, said deciding how to vote Tuesday wasn't easy.
“I would say it was probably the hardest vote that I had needed to make in my four years in Pierre,” Koth said.
Over the course of an investigation by the House Select Committee — of which Koth was not a member — he paid attention, reading documents provided by the committee and the South Dakota Department of Public Safety. He even sat through “a number” of hearings held by the committee and spoke with members who conducted the investigation.
At 9:42 p.m. Monday, Ravnsborg wrote a letter to the House of Representatives, claiming justice had already been served, referring to two traffic offenses he was convicted of in relation to the Sep. 12, 2020, crash that killed Joe Boever, a pedestrian walking along a highway at night.
The letter, which was not written with the official letterhead of Ravnsborg’s office, attempted to dispel many already-proven facts of the case through word play.
“Jason was distracted at the time of impact,” one statement that the letter attempts to argue reads. “False. … At no time has any investigator articulated or explained how Jason was distracted. Claiming Jason was distracted was released to influence the public and taint a potential jury pool without proof or even a theory of distraction.”
However, in January testimony from crash reconstruction expert John Daily, his investigation pointed to distraction by a cell phone.
“The only thing I can come up with is distraction. That’s why with all the cell phone records, we knew that the cell phones had to be analyzed, and they were,” Daily testified to the House Select Committee. “I think the conclusion there is they probably provided some sort of a distraction. For some reason, the driver was distracted and was driving on the shoulder. If he was driving in his lane, the crash never would’ve happened.”
It’s proven, based on a forensic phone search conducted by the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, that Ravnsborg’s phones were not on at the time of impact — as his letter suggests. However, phone data had proven Ravnsborg was on his phone for a majority of the drive, including the minutes leading up to the crash.
While Koth said Ravnsborg’s letter was very well-written, he believes the attorney general should’ve taken the opportunity to speak to the House Select Committee, instead of waiting until the night before the vote to speak out.
“It was troubling to me that it was sent at that time, the night before we had special session,” Koth said. “It was troubling to me that he, for whatever reason, had chosen not to testify or talk with the committee. My understanding was he was invited to, not subpoenaed, so it troubled me that he didn't put forth his side of the information prior to [the impeachment vote].”
Noting he felt Ravnsborg wasn’t being forthright surrounding the facts of the case, Koth admitted he’s not a lawyer. He voted in favor of impeachment based on the premise that it warranted a deeper look into Ravnsborg’s actions, something that will be provided by a Senate trial.
“I’m not saying [the House] didn't look at the legal aspect, but I think it was much broader than that, that we needed to look at it as it related to, ‘Was the attorney general forthright? Was there any issues, testimony, within all those documents that would cause us pause?’” Koth explained. “I think that’s really what happened. On the Senate side, there’s going to be some attorneys, and they’re going to dig into the legal side of it. I firmly believe that it’ll be a fair trial.”
Though the impeachment was approved with the bare minimum 36 votes necessary from the 70-member chamber, not a single lawmaker who voted against the resolution publicly shared their rationale.
Koth said during caucus, a private gathering of lawmakers ahead of the vote, many explained their rationale to other lawmakers.
“It was a rather tense caucus meeting — a lot of them are because that’s where one can feel comfortable in sharing their thoughts and their reasons why they were gonna vote one way or the other,” Koth said. “Those that voted against [impeachment], … their rationale was very clear, very pointed.”
With election season approaching, Koth indicated some legislators may have been cautious to speak on the record regarding their vote, despite their vote remaining public.
“There's nothing wrong with that, for people not to publicly speak on why they voted against it,” Koth said. “What I shared with them is as we walk this life and deal with Pierre, there are sometimes that we’re forced to make a decision at a particular time based upon what we’ve heard, and not what we feel. It’s not really black and white.”
Rep. Paul Miskimins, R-Mitchell, who is not running for re-election, voted against impeaching Ravnsborg. He did not respond to multiple attempts to gather insight on his rationale.
Koth said when he took the oath of office to represent District 20, he was aware of a higher standard that elected officials are held to.
“We are deemed leaders. The attorney general? He is the highest official in law enforcement,” Koth said. “If there is any hint of that person not adhering to the highest possible standard, and I’m talking about as high as humanly possible, then that permeates and rolls down hill. I do believe that we’re held to a higher standard, but I don't believe it's black and white.”
Ravnsborg will be tried on articles of impeachment alleging both crimes and malfeasance in office in a special session of the South Dakota Senate on June 21-22, 2022.