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Crime & Courts

Woster: Ravnsborg crossed the line in outreach to DCI on cell phones

South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg says he initially believed he'd hit a deer the night of the crash. It wasn't until the next day, when he drove back to the scene of the incident, that he discovered the body of 55-year-old Joe Boever, whom he'd fatally struck.
Bloomberg
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg says he initially believed he'd hit a deer the night of the crash. It wasn't until the next day, when he drove back to the scene of the incident, that he discovered the body of 55-year-old Joe Boever, whom he'd fatally struck.

An SDPB driveway moment has veteran journalist Kevin Woster pondering the conduct of South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg in the days following the fatal crash for which he is currently facing an impeachment inquiry.

Did Ravnsborg abuse his office when he sought information about cell phone data recovery before he turned over his cell phone to investigators?

Woster's blog

Sitting in the Safeway parking lot here in Rapid City, listening to a public-radio report from the state Capitol by Lee Strubinger, I was suddenly transfixed by what I heard.

It was something I’d missed in all the coverage of Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg and his involvement in a car-pedestrian accident that killed a man.

It was a meeting, a few days after the crash, with Brent Gromer, then a supervisory agent for the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation and commander of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

The outreach by Ravnsborg to Gromer came up recently during an ongoing impeachment inquiry by a legislative committee in connection with the 2020 accident in which Ravnsborg hit and killed 55-year-old Joe Boever of Highmore.

I somehow missed reading or hearing about the meeting between Ravnsborg and Gromer until the public-radio report last week, which caused me to delay my grocery shopping to listen.

Stopped in the state Capitol by public radio's Strubinger and Associated Press reporter Stephen Groves, Ravnsborg stood for a rare impromptu interview. Questions included several on the ongoing impeachment inquiry by a committee of the South Dakota House of Representatives, the accident itself, and that meeting with Gromer a few days after the accident.

Ravnsborg went to DCI headquarters in Pierre and asked Gromer what kind of information can be recovered from cell phones. Gromer knows a lot about that because the task force he commanded at the time retrieves data from computers and cell phones in its fight against the solicitation of children over the internet.

Here’s the rub: When Ravnsborg reached out to Gromer about cell phones, Ravnsborg was under investigation for his role in Boever’s death late in the evening of Sept. 12, 2020. Ravnsborg was at the wheel of his Ford Taurus when it struck Boever as he walked along the shoulder of Highway 14 just west of Highmore. Investigators concluded that Boever was carrying a flashlight that was turned on at the time Ravnsbor’s vehicle drifted over and struck him.

Almost a year after the accident, Ravnsborg eventually pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges: making an illegal lane change and using a cell phone while driving. Another charge of careless driving was dropped.

He received fines but no jail time.

Gov. Kristi Noem said she was “outraged by the plea arrangement. And her Secretary of Public Safety, Craig Price, said Ravnsborg should have been charged with second-degree manslaughter.

Reaching out on cell phone extraction

When Ravnsborg reached out to Gromer days after the accident, Ravnsborg hadn’t yet turned the cell phone over to crash investigators.

He was actually carrying two cell phones the night of the accident, a state phone, and a personal phone. He was using the personal phone just prior to hitting Boever.

Obviously, such a cell phone would be a crucial part of the investigation.

So talking to Gromer, a well-respected law-enforcement professional who recently retired from the DCI, about what information could be retrieved from cell phones was, at best, poor judgment on Ravnsborg’s part. At worst it seems like an abuse of an elected office by an elected official.

At least, that’s what I was thinking as I sat there in my pickup in the grocery store parking lot, listening to public radio. I was also thinking about Gromer and the ICAC Task Force, too. I’ve been to the task force headquarters here in Rapid City a couple of times. It’s a serious, somber place, where very serious crimes are approached in a serious, somber way.

Both times I was there, there were computers in one state of examination and disassembly or another and cell phones under the same type of scrutiny.

For a story I was working on at the time, I spoke with Gromer and other professionals there about what information they could get from those devices, even in situations where alleged perpetrators thought they had “wiped them” clean. And I was amazed.

The technology is impressive. These guys are good. They’re dogged. And they believe deeply in what they do.

When Ravnsborg went to them, he went to experts. About cell phones. Like the one he was carrying and had been using very shortly before his Taurus slammed into Boever.

Ravnsborg first revealed, or acknowledged, that he had gone to Gromer for the information on cell phones early in the investigation of the accident. He was being interviewed by investigators for the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation. The North Dakota agents were brought into the case to avoid a conflict of interest, or the appearance of such, since, as attorney general, Ravnsborg oversees the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation.

The investigators concluded that Ravnsborg’s car had drifted onto the shoulder and hit Boever. And soon the question of whether he’d been using the cell phone at the time of the accident and what the phone might show of his movements before, during, and afterward became important to the case.

Presumably, Ravnsborg knew that. Or had some inkling of it when the gravity of his situation began to sink in.

Ravnsborg has made a few statements about the incident but generally hasn’t been available for interviews on it. Strubinger and Groves caught up with him in a hallway of the Capitol as he was leaving a committee meeting room.

But was the call appropriate?

Strubinger was kind enough to share a recording of the interview. Int it, Groves pushed Ravnsborg on whether the outreach to Gromer was appropriate.

“Going back to an interview you gave to the North Dakota investigators, they pointed out, or the committee pointed out that you had talked to a member of your DCI about cell phone extraction before handing that over,” Groves said. “Was that an appropriate use of your position and your office, while you had this investigation going on?”

“I do believe so,” Ravnsborg responded. “I was just asking, inquiring factual information on how processes work. And I did so on other occasions all the time. We have some very complex DNA and other stuff that I ask them about all the time.”

Groves continued on that line of questioning, asking Ravnsborg if he wasn’t conflating his AG’s position with the investigation, “using your position to navigate the investigation?”

“No, I was just learning how something works,” Ravnsborg said. “And I do that on a daily occasion, all the time. Like I said, the forensics lab has many things that I will admit, I don’t know how all of DNA works, or technology phones …”

Ah, yeah, well, sure. But he doesn’t “do it all the time” when he is being investigated for the death of another human being. And he doesn’t do it all the time when it could have a very material bearing on his own case, and specifically a cell phone that he hadn’t yet turned over and what information might be retrieved from it.

That sounds a lot like conflating to me. It also sounds at least a little bit like abuse of power, or abuse of a public position. Who could see it otherwise, other than Ravnsborg or maybe some of his supporters?

Strubinger hit Ravnsborg was with an appropriately blunt question on how he was driving at the time of the accident.

“Did your tires hit the rumble strips?” Strubinger asked.

Ravnsborg responded: “Well, yes, I mean, absolutely.”

Strubinger quickly followed with: “All four of them?”

Ravnsborg hesitated in his response: “Well, I guess I will remain, I will keep a statement when the time is right about what I believed happened with the accident and reserve comment at this time.”

AG’s future hinges on impeachment probe

Ravnsborg is waiting for a special committee of the South Dakota House of Representatives to decide whether his actions on the night of the accident and afterward merit impeachment. If the committee votes to send it to the House and a majority of members vote for impeachment, the matter would go to the Senate. There it would take a two-thirds vote to remove Ravnsborg from office.

I assume that, prior to that, the committee will want to find out more details from Gromer about Ravnsborg’s outreach to him.

Meanwhile, Ravnsborg continues with most of the duties of AG, overseeing an office that has seen a number of lawyers leave and a number of DCI agents retire during his time in office. Gromer retired a few weeks ago, which was a significant loss to the DCI and the state.

Ravnsborg’s duties in the Capitol include meeting with legislative committees on budget and other matters for his office. He was coming out of such a meeting recently when Strubinger and Groves caught up with him for the interview.

Groves pointed out that the North Dakota investigators basically had told the House impeachment committee that they didn’t believe Ravnsborg’s account of what happened the night of the accident.

Ravnsborg said: “Well, I guess I would say that, they, some of the things they said you’ve got to look very closely at the details. Everybody’s got to get past the headlines and look at what they actually said.”

Ravnsborg said he was willing to take a lie-detector test, but was told by the agents that wasn’t necessary.

“I was willing to go to North Dakota,” Ravnsborg said. “I took their testimony to basically say they didn’t want me to because they knew I would tell the truth. So I think that speaks volumes.”

That’s Ravnsborg’s interpretation, of course. The North Dakota agents didn’t tell the committee that they knew he would tell the truth. And I’m not aware of them saying that anywhere else.

And speaking of polygraph tests, one of the North Dakota agents also told the committee that Ravnsborg had approached the DCI with questions about how polygraphs work. Again, that was after the accident.

Proper? I don’t think so.

Ravnsborg begged off additional questions by Groves and Strubinger, saying he had other business. But Strubinger and Groves did a nice job of getting valuable comments from the AG with the little time they had. Questions included asking whether he had spoken with members of the special House committee. He said he hadn’t.

They asked Ravnsborg if he was satisfied with the way the committee had handled itself so far. He said: “I guess I would just say it’s a political process and we’re watching it. And that’s the way it’s been from day one, a very political process.”

Announcement on possible reelection run on hold

The reporters also asked Ravnsborg if he had been speaking to delegates for the GOP state convention to be held this coming summer, where the party’s nominee for AG will be chosen. Lining up delegates in advance helped Ravnsborg win a three-person convention contest for the GOP nomination four years ago.

Ravnsborg said: “I talk to people all over the state, — party officials, government officials. Sometimes they wear the same hats … I’m actively talking to everybody.”

Former South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley, who also has served as U.S. attorney for South Dakota, is running for the state AG’s job again. He has been lining up support, including strong support among the law-enforcement community, and is making contacts with delegates. He is also getting ready for a string of Lincoln Day dinners by local Republican Party organizations across the state.

So the main run of the campaign cycle is coming up.

Ravnsborg, who is in his first term as AG, declined to say whether he plans to run for a second term.

“We’ll make an announcement when I think the time’s appropriate,” he said. “Until that time I’ll continue to do the work the people elected me to do. right now.”

The outcome of the impeachment inquiry could make the decision for Ravnsborg. Or not, depending how it turns out.

Meanwhile, Ravsborg said he continues to do his job in “fighting crime” and working to “keep the people of South Dakota safe.”

I’m going to resist the urge to comment on that last part.

But you can imagine what Joe Boever’s family would have to say about it.