Prosecutors say they couldn't prove AG Jason Ravnsborg knew he'd struck human on night of crash

Joe Sneve
Sioux Falls Argus Leader
South Dakota House Speaker Spencer Gosch, left, Rep. Mike Stevens, center, and Rep. Jon Hansen, right, listen to testimony Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 in Pierre, S.D. The House Select Committee on Investigation is examining Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg's conduct surrounding a 2020 fata car crash.

PIERRE — County prosecutors say the South Dakota attorney general attempted to attempted to downplay to authorities his cellphone usage the night he struck and killed a pedestrian while driving in fall 2020.

But they stopped short of accusing Jason Ravnsborg on Thursday, during testimony to the House Select Committee on Investigation, of lying about not seeing a body the night 55-year-old Joe Boever was killed. The moment was part of the eighth day of an ongoing impeachment probe into the attorney general.

"I operate in the world of facts, and if I had to prove it, there's no way I could prove he was lying," said Michael Moore, one of three state's attorneys who assisted the Hyde County state's attorney in determining not to levy serious criminal charges against Ravnsborg last year. "He was definitely minimizing stuff ... but did he lie about it? There's no facts to prove that."

More:Prosecutors, associates of AG Jason Ravnsborg set to testify in impeachment probe

Moore's remarks come a month after law enforcement investigators told the committee they believed Ravnsborg lied about his cellphone use, and whether he was aware he'd struck a human before leaving the crash scene Sept. 12, 2020.

Ravnsborg called 911 immediately following the crash, but did not report he'd struck Boever until the following morning when he went back to the scene while returning a vehicle he was loaned the night prior by the late Highmore County Sheriff, Mike Volek.

Both Moore and Emily Sovell, the Hyde County deputy state's attorney who chose to charge Ravnsborg with three traffic violations, said they were aware of the investigators' opinion that Ravnsborg had seen the body of Boever the night of the crash. But they chose not to bring felony charges against Ravnsborg, because they believed they would not be able to convince a jury to convict.

The traffic violations did not amount to criminal culpability for Boever's death.

Ravnsborg ultimately pled no contest to charges of using a cellphone while driving and a lane violation and received a fine.

More:Dozens say calls pushing for Ravnsborg's impeachment lacked one major detail

The state had dropped a third charge of careless driving.

The chief of staff to the South Dakota attorney general, Tim Bormann, testifies to the House Select Committee on Investigation, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 in Pierre, S.D.. State lawmakers are investigating Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg's conduct surrounding a 2020 fatal car crash.

Committee questions Gov. Kristi Noem's involvement

The House Select Committee on Investigation also spent a portion of its hours-long proceeding Thursday inquiring about the level involvement in the case by Gov. Kristi Noem and her administration, which prior to charges being levied, released video footage showing Ravnsborg being interrogated by investigators.

While Sovell and Moore insist that had no bearing on the determination of charges, it complicated the prosecution and jeopardized Ravnsborg's right to due process, they said.

"I've never been involved in a case where the interview of the defendant has been released to the press, I think, at all — especially while the case was pending," Moore said. "It's an ethical violation. ... It could taint a jury and it could negatively impact the ability to prosecute the case."

Sovell said she felt pressure when determining charges, though she declined to directly address questions about who was pressuring her. She did say it became clear as the investigation dragged into 2021 that South Dakota Department of Public Safety Secretary Craig Price and the governor wanted to see charges filed.

And at some point, Price was cut off from a communication chain Sovell had with crash investigators and North Dakota detectives handling witness interviews, according to the prosecutors' testimony.

"We don't live in a vacuum, and we knew what the governor wanted us to do," said Moore, who testified alongside Sovell.

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.

Price, though, posted on social media late Thursday that he stands behind the handling of Ravnsborg's criminal investigation.

"As we heard today and I’ve known since Sept. 2020, this was a first class investigation," read a post on Price's Twitter account. "I’m proud of the officers who dedicated so much time to seeking the truth."

The House Select Committee on Investigation is scheduled to conduct its next hearing March 10, though committee chairman and House Speaker Spencer Gosch, R-Glenham, said it's yet to be determined what will take place during the proceeding.

He told reporters Thursday evening the committee will eventually decide whether recommend impeachment articles, before issuing a formal report to the House of Representatives.