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Crime & Courts

Woster: Still waiting for justice in the Ravnsborg case

Screenshot 2022-03-31 075729.jpg
Mary Jo Zilverberg Nemec
Joe Boever’s cousin, Nick Nemec

This interview above is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment.

Nick Nemec has plenty to focus on these days.

It’s dry over in the Holabird area, where Nemec and his family own and operate a farming-ranching operation. Awfully dry.

He’s worried about that, of course. Moisture is money. And right now, moisture is scarce.

But that’s regular farmer stuff. If you can’t stand some drought, some blizzards and some hail, you won’t farm for long. Nemec has farmed all his life, save his military experience that included time at West Point and a tour of duty with the Marines.

At 63, he knows the challenges that working the land presents. He accepts them.

But there’s something else these days that weighs heavily on Nick Nemec’s mind — and on his heart, really, in the way that we define heart to mean more than just an organ that circulates blood.

It has been more than 18 months since his cousin, 55-year-old Joe Boever, was hit and killed by a car as he walked along U.S. Highway 14 late in the evening just west of Highmore, carrying a flashlight. And Nick Nemec still waits for justice.

The driver of the car that killed Boever was South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg.

He said it was an accident and that he thought he hit a deer in the road. After calling 911, Ravnsborg drove on to Pierre in a car loaned to him by the Hyde County sheriff, who had responded to the accident.

Ravnsborg told investigators later that he had no idea he had hit a person. And only found out the next morning when stopped at the scene of the crash on the way to return the loaned vehicle and discovered Boever’s body lying in short grass near the shoulder.

Almost a year after the crash, Ravnsborg pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges — making an illegal lane change and using a phone while driving. The investigation indicated that Ravnsborg was using his cell phone just prior to but not at the time of the crash.

It also indicated that he had drifted onto the shoulder where Boever was walking.

Prosecutors said more serious charges either didn’t fit the crime or weren’t available under state law.

Sentence considered too light by many

So the attorney general was ordered by retired Judge John Brown to pay a few thousand dollars in fines and court costs. But he didn’t receive any jail time. Brown did sentence Ravnsborg to do public service events on distracted driving each year around the anniversary of the crash. But Ravnsborg’s defense lawyer objected and it was later determined that such requirements couldn’t last beyond the terms of suspended jail time or probation, which Ravnsborg didn’t get.

The family and friends of Joe Boever cried foul. So did Gov. Kristi Noem, who said the charges and punishment were far too lenient for the crime, Ravnsborg’s sometimes questionable answers and actions after the crash and during the investigation. And for causing the death of a human being, of course.

But it wasn’t quite over for Ravnsborg. He faced moves by some in the Legislature to impeach him and remove him from office, a process that still isn’t settled.

“We’re a year and a half, and a little more than that, into this, and it just drags on and on,” Nick Nemec said during a recent phone interview. “And, I don’t know, I guess I’m not holding out much hope for his removal.”

The impeachment process would need a majority vote by the South Dakota House of Representatives and a trial in the state Senate, where a guilty verdict by two-thirds of the members would force Ravnsborg from office.

Monday wasn’t a hopeful day in that regard for Nemec and others who think Ravnsborg deserves more punishment than he got. A special 9-member committee of South Dakota House members — seven Republicans, two Democrats — formed to consider impeachment voted on party lines to recommend that the Republican attorney general not be impeached.

The two Democrats voted to recommend impeachment proceedings to the full House. Six of the seven Republicans voted against impeachment. Chairman Spencer Gosch, the speaker of the House, didn’t vote, saying he would only do so in the event of a tie.

Gosch later told Stephen Groves of the Associated Press that the committee focused on the constitution and whether Ravnsborg’s actions were impeachable, with the majority determining they were not.

Republican state Rep. Mike Stevens of Yankton told Groves: “I felt that there weren’t enough facts that were clear and convincing, which is the burden of proof that we had to follow.”

The committee vote was the latest in a long line of disappointments for Nick Nemec and other members of Joe Boever’s family.

“I sat at the Capitol too long,” Nemec said. “I was disappointed but not surprised by the recommendation of that committee. But I guess I was surprised about one thing. I figured the two Democrats would vote for impeachment. But I thought maybe one or two Republicans might vote for it, too.”

Noem says committee failed Boever family

Disappointment reached to the top of South Dakota government. After the committee released its decision, Gov. Noem sent out a tweet Monday that read: “Jason Ravnsborg killed a man, lied to investigators about the events of that night, and attempted to cover it up. Joseph Boever’s family deserves justice.”

Tweeting further, Noem said: “The question before this committee was, should the Attorney General continue to be the top law enforcement officer in South Dakota. It is clear that he should not be. My hope is that the House of Representatives as a whole will do the right thing.”

Lawmakers will gather in the Capitol again on April 12. Despite the recommendation of the committee, individual House members can move to begin impeachment proceedings. Nemec isn’t ready to rule out the possibility that the Republican-dominated House would take up impeachment over the committee recommendation.

“The committee was kind of stacked with people I didn’t have good feelings about on this,” he said. “And I’ve had other Republican House members, not a lot but some, come to me and express solidarity.”

Still, he’s not very optimistic.

“I’m not holding out hope for removal. It takes a majority of the House to impeach and two thirds of the Senate to convict,” Nemec says. “That’s a pretty high bar.”

It’s one that Nemec and Noem both hope to see happen, however. This is probably one of the few times that Nemec, a former Democratic state legislator and national committeeman for the party, agrees with Noem, a conservative Republican.

Noem followed her tweet Monday with a statement issued Tuesday from her office, noting that Public Safety Secretary Craig Price had summarized things well before the House Select Committee on impeachment when he said: “The Attorney General’s actions throughout the investigation, the findings of our review of the crash events, along with the context provided by the pre- and post-crash behaviors draw the conclusion that he is unfit to hold the position as the chief law enforcement officer in South Dakota.”

Noem continued in the statement, saying that by not recommending impeachment and removal, the Republican members of the committee “made it clear that they are more concerned about protecting one of their own than they are about the conduct of our state’s top law enforcement officer and holding him to account. The people of South Dakota deserve better.”

If not the Legislature, Jackley might settle Ravnsborg issue

She said the full House will soon have the opportunity to “correct the failures of the committee” and “do what is right in this matter.”

Beyond the committee and impeachment discussions, Noem has long called for Ravnsborg to resign because of the accident. She has also endorsed former South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley, who is again running for AG, an office he held for 10 years prior to Ravnsborg.

Jackley ran for governor in 2018, losing to Noem in the GOP primary.

If Ravnsborg isn’t impeached and removed, he could face Jackley in the Republican State Convention this summer, where GOP delegates will choose the party nominee for the general election. Ravnsborg apparently has been contacting delegates in preparation to seek another term, if he can avoid expulsion.

Nemec puts more faith in Marty Jackley unseating Ravnsborg than he does in the legislative process.

“I’m holding out hopes that Marty Jackley beats him at the convention, although that would mean Ravnsborg would remain in office until January, assuming the Dems don’t come up with somebody who could beat Jackley,” Nemec says.

Full disclosure here. Nick Nemec is a friend of mine and a high-school classmate of my wife,

Beyond that, Nemec knows Marty Jackley personally. They aren’t friends. But they’re friendly acquaintances, despite many political differences. Jackley has hunted pheasants at Nemec’s place during group hunts that Nick and I have organized, typically inviting politicians from both parties and bloggers — liberal, conservative and in-between — as well as journalists.

Beyond pheasant hunting, Nemec points to Jackley’s experience as attorney general and before that as U.S. attorney for South Dakota.

“Marty Jackley won a pretty significant court case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court,” Nemec said. “I’m probably on the other side of the political spectrum from Marty Jackley, but he’s a good lawyer.”

As state attorney general, Jackley argued and won a case, South Dakota vs. Wayfair, Inc., before the U.S. Supreme Court on a 5-4 decision that allows South Dakota and other states to collect taxes on internet sales from companies such as Amazon.

Ravnsborg, conversely, was considered the least experienced of three AG candidates at the 2018 GOP convention. Yet he beat long-time Lawrence County State’s Attorney John Fitzgerald, who was once named state prosecutor of the year, and former state legislator and Fall River County State’s Attorney Lance Russell.

Then Ravnsborg went on to the general election, where he beat Democrat Randy Seiler, who had more than three decades of prosecution experience in the U.S. attorney’s office and eventually served as U.S. attorney for South Dakota.

“He (Ravnsborg) was the least-qualified Republican in a three-way race and much-less qualified than Randy Seiler in the general election,” Nemec said.

Ravnsborg argued during his campaign that he could make up for his lack of courtroom experience as a prosecutor with other legal skills and experience. He also touted his leadership experience in the Army, where he was an officer and combat veteran in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was awarded a bronze star for his Iraq service. He is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Before becoming attorney general, he was in private practice and served for a time as Union County deputy state’s attorney.

Ravnsborg also apparently has skill in developing and maintaining relationships, both with GOP delegates and with some members of the state Legislature. Will those relationships save him from impeachment and even give him a chance at the convention against the much-more-qualified Jackley?

We’ll see.

Meanwhile, Nick Nemec will continue to hope for moisture.

And for justice.