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South Dakota AG acknowledged web surfing on his phone minutes before fatal crash

Lawyers for Jason Ravnsborg argued the release of video of his interviews with investigators violated his right to a fair trial.

South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg acknowledged browsing websites on his phone just minutes before the fatal crash last year that has led to bipartisan calls for his resignation or impeachment.

In a September 2020 interview with investigators, Ravnsborg acknowledged checking email and news sites on his phone, but maintained he had put his phone down at least a minute before he struck and killed 55-year-old Joseph Boever.

In a videotaped interview that was made public earlier this week, investigators questioned his timeline.

One investigator noted Ravnsborg called 911 at 10:24 p.m. and had unlocked his phone just four minutes earlier.

"You signed into your Yahoo! mail account," the unidentified investigator said while looking at information he said was compiled from Ravnsborg's phone records. He noted that the attorney general then visited the Dakota Free Press, which describes itself as a liberal news site, and a minute later, the conservative website Real Clear Politics.

"Then, about a minute later, this article was pulled up on the 'Just the News' website," he continued, referring to a conservative political news site founded by John Solomon, a journalist known for his stories trafficking in right-wing conspiracy theories about the Biden family. The investigator said Ravnsborg clicked on a story about Joe Biden and China.

"Mm-hm," Ravnsborg replied. "I remember looking at it and that's when I set my phone down, prior to" the accident, he said.

The investigator then said, "We're looking at a minute to two minutes before you call 911. The concern being is that we know from the time of impact, there was a time period that went by before you called 911. You had to realize what was going on, come to a stop, get your bearings back about you, get out, look at the damage, figure out what's going on," the investigator said, estimating that would have been one to two minutes.

"I guess, yeah," Ravnsborg replied.

The attorney general, a Republican, maintained that he was not looking at his phone at the time of the crash, and he has insisted that he didn't know that he had hit a person until the next day when he returned to the accident scene and found the body.

In his 911 call, he said he hit something "in the middle of the road."

Asked by the operator if it was a deer, he said, "I have no idea." "It could be," he said. He told the investigators it felt like a "thunderbolt" had hit his car.

In another part of the interview made public earlier this week, investigators pressed Ravnsborg on why he hadn't realized he had hit a person, noting that Boever's broken glasses were found inside the attorney general's Ford Taurus.

"His face was in your windshield, Jason, think about that,” one of the investigators told him.

The videos were posted on the South Dakota Department of Public Safety's website earlier this week after Republican Gov. Kristi Noem authorized their release. They were taken down from the site after a judge ordered them removed.

Defense attorneys for Ravnsborg argued that the release of video and other documents violated his right to a fair trial.

Ravnsborg acknowledged in a statement shortly after the crash that he struck and killed a man walking on the shoulder of a rural highway and is facing three misdemeanor charges, as well as calls for his resignation.

A state circuit court judge in the county where the crash occurred ordered Noem and the Department of Public Safety late Thursday to halt the governor’s plan to release more documents from the crash investigation, the Argus Leader reported.

Despite being taken down from the state site, the interview was posted on YouTube by a third party on Thursday and was still online late Friday afternoon. A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety confirmed to NBC News that it was the same video. The interview exchange about the phone usage was first shared on Twitter by Timothy Johnson, a researcher for Media Matters for America, a left-learning media watchdog organization.

Noem had tried to ratchet up pressure on the attorney general to resign earlier Thursday, promising to release the investigation documents and enlisting a senior cabinet member to join the chorus calling for his removal from office.

Speaking at a news conference, Noem said she decided to publicly call for Ravnsborg to resign after taking a day to review the investigation, including videos of his interviews with law enforcement. She cast the decision to release the documents and video as providing transparency to the investigation.

Ravnsborg has indicated he will not step down and insists he can continue performing the duties of his office despite facing the traffic charges and impeachment in the Legislature.

Craig Price, Noem’s secretary of public safety, pushed for Ravnsborg’s impeachment. Joining Noem at the news conference, Price said “maintaining public trust is critical” for law enforcement officers, referring to his 20-year career as a police officer that culminated with overseeing the state’s Highway Patrol.

Price had said the Department of Public Safety was within the bounds of state law in releasing the documents.

Noem said she spent 10 hours going through details of the crash investigation on Monday, a day before she called for him to step down.

“I had not seen anything prior to that, but that is one of the reasons that we moved forward on Tuesday and why I put forward my personal opinion that he should resign,” she said.

The governor said she had not communicated directly with Ravnsborg since the crash, which occurred as he was driving home from a Republican fundraiser.

Meanwhile, lawmakers readied to move forward with impeachment proceedings next week. House Speaker Spencer Gosch, a Republican, has proposed forming a special committee to investigate Ravnsborg’s conduct in the fatal crash.