Jason Ravnsborg’s decision to not pursue re-election as South Dakota attorney general doesn’t rule out the possibility of him serving in state government following the November election, several South Dakota Republican officials told News Watch.
The speculation is part of a larger sense of uncertainty and intrigue that hover over the upcoming attorney general election in South Dakota, in which delegates of the state Republican Party will have a strong voice in charting the futures of three of the state’s top legal officials — Ravnsborg, David Natvig and Marty Jackley.
Ravnsborg faces a Senate impeachment trial June 21-22 stemming from a highway crash in which he struck and killed pedestrian Joe Boever west of Highmore in the fall of 2020. But Ravnsborg’s future in government could also hinge on the state GOP convention a few days later in Watertown, where party delegates will vote to declare a nominee for attorney general.
Ravnsborg, suspended from his duties since the House of Representatives voted for impeachment April 12, has reached out to delegates in support of Natvig, director of the Division of Criminal Investigation. Natvig is a former law-school classmate of whom Ravnsborg appointed to the DCI role.
Natvig announced his intention last month to run for Ravnsborg’s job against Jackley, the former three-term attorney general who held the post from 2009-2019. The Republican candidate in the November general election is selected by Republican delegates at the GOP convention.
The Republican nomination process is pivotal because there is currently no Democratic candidate in the race for attorney general, and South Dakota hasn’t elected a Democrat to the position since Kermit Sande in 1972.
GOP delegates interviewed by News Watch said that while Jackley is viewed as the favorite to win the nomination, convention balloting can be unpredictable, with anywhere from 600 to 800 statewide delegates expected to cast votes this year. If Natvig prevails, and wins the general election, he would be in position to appoint Ravnsborg to the AG’s office as a lawyer or even as DCI director, delegates told News Watch.
“There’s a path to victory for David [Natvig],” said Rich Hilgemann of Aberdeen, vice chairman of the Brown County Republicans, adding that he has spoken recently with Natvig, Jackley and Ravnsborg about delegate counts. “With everything going on, it was just decided that David’s chances to win this thing are a lot better than Jason’s.”
Asked about the possibility of Natvig appointing Ravnsborg to a state law enforcement role if he prevails, Hilgemann said: “It’s possible. I wouldn’t advise it, but it’s possible.”
Such an appointment could potentially occur even if Ravnsborg is convicted in his impeachment trial. State law defines the punishment as “removal from office and disqualification to hold any office of trust or profit under the state,” which some law-trained delegates interpret as meaning elected office rather than working as a state employee, an analysis that could ultimately be tested in court.
In a phone interview with News Watch on June 13, Natvig didn’t rule out any appointment scenarios but dismissed the notion that his candidacy for attorney general is linked to Ravnsborg’s future.
He went a step further in an interview with the Sioux Falls Argus Leader published June 15, stating that Ravnsborg “will not be employed by either the attorney general’s office or the Division of Criminal Investigation,” if Natvig is elected as AG or continues as DCI director.
“First off, I’m not a politician,” said Natvig, a 56-year-old Kimball native who served as Brule County State’s Attorney from 2003-2019 while also practicing civil law. “I’m going into this race with the attitude that I don’t owe political favors to anyone. I would not make any promises to anyone about anything.”
Questions about qualifications
Natvig, a former high school wrestler who received his undergraduate degree in political science from South Dakota State University, said he knows Ravnsborg from their time at the University of South Dakota School of Law, where Natvig graduated in 2000, one year ahead of Ravnsborg.
“We had some contact between law school and (Natvig’s appointment as DCI director in 2019), though not a lot,” Natvig said. “We might have referred a case to each other a few times, but that’s about it in those 19 years.”
The fact that Natvig, who is not a certified law enforcement officer, was appointed to run the state investigative bureau came as a surprise to Jim Vlahakis, a former DCI director who will retire later this year after 10 years as Yankton County Sheriff.
“I’m in my 43rd year in law enforcement and I had never heard of David Natvig until Jason appointed him as a non-certified law enforcement officer to be DCI director,” said Vlahakis, who was elected as a first-time Republican delegate earlier this month and supports Jackley. “That was odd to me, and I think it was felt throughout the agency.”
Natvig cites his military service as an Army paratrooper and years as a prosecutor as examples of his leadership skills, adding that “clearly there was a reason I was brought in from the outside” to run DCI, an agency formed in 1937 to lead investigations as well as maintain records, train law enforcement and operate the state forensic lab.
Jackley has boasted during his campaign of support from the law enforcement community, including the endorsements of the past five DCI directors: Brian Zeeb (2018-19), Bryan Gortmaker (2008-18), Vlahakis (2006-08), Kevin Thom (2002-06) and Doug Lake (1996-2002).
“If I’m fortunate enough to be elected attorney general, I will appoint an experienced and certified law enforcement officer as DCI director so they can make arrests and lead other law enforcement officers,” Jackley told News Watch. He recalled cases during his time as attorney general, such as when the original state flag was stolen in 2015, that he instructed his DCI director to handle the investigation and personally make the arrest.
“You’re sending a message publicly by sending out the most experienced law enforcement officer that you have,” said Jackley.
Natvig pointed to crackdowns on violent crime and drug trafficking as campaign priorities as he pursues the role of attorney general. He said he visited the southern border with Mexico about two months ago and that “it’s wide open,” allowing drugs such as cocaine and fentanyl to flow into the country, which fuels violent crime. “Those things go hand in hand,” he said.
But delegates say that Natvig also has to run on his record at DCI, noting a string of recent retirements among senior staff and assistant directors.
Fall River County State’s Attorney Lance Russell, a former South Dakota legislator who also served as state GOP director, said he has noticed a difference in DCI operations from when he served as state’s attorney from 2001-08.
“We’ve had some needs, and the response time has not been as fast,” Russell said. “I would say that it is much more difficult to acquire the assistance of agents down here than the last time I served as state’s attorney. There appears to be a staffing issue as far as the recruitment of agents, and that’s frustrating.”
Natvig admitted there have been retirements at DCI, but he attributes the departures to many of the agents reaching their 20-year state service time concurrently rather than a general dissatisfaction with the agency’s direction. He estimated there are 150 employees at DCI, compared to about 45 in the Attorney General’s Office.
Hilgemann, who is entering his 10th year as a state GOP delegate from Aberdeen, called DCI staffing issues a “sign of the times” and defended Natvig’s stint as director.
“DCI is still DCI,” he said. “They’re still doing their job. It’s tough to hire anyone in law enforcement right now because of all the protests we saw during the summer of unrest (in 2020) and the lack of respect for police officers. I’m not surprised that people don’t want to be cops anymore, or that they take retirement when they can.”
Fatal crash highlights connections
Natvig and Tim Bormann, chief of staff in the Attorney General’s Office and a fellow USD law school grad, were both appointed by Ravnsborg to their roles. Along with Ravnsborg, the two form a triumvirate in the minds of some GOP delegates. Bormann has described the three as “law school friends” in testimony surrounding the impeachment probe.
Their connections were reinforced during the investigation into the fatal crash on Sept. 13, 2020 that led to Ravnsborg pleading guilty to two misdemeanors and being suspended from his role as attorney general as he awaits the Senate trial.
In the moments following the crash on U.S. Highway 14, after calling 911, Ravnsborg sent a combined text message to Natvig and Bormann, in which the AG speculated that he hit a deer and showed a photo of his damaged car, to which Natvig responded “Holy (expletive)” and “Glad you’re OK.” Ravnsborg told investigators that he also separately called Natvig and Bormann that night.
Natvig was also present when Ravnsborg spoke with a DCI agent during the time of the crash investigation, which was handled by agents from North Dakota to avoid a conflict of interest. Supervisory Special Agent Brent Gromer, who specialized in obtaining data from cell phones and has since retired, filed a report saying Ravnsborg asked him about information North Dakota agents would be able to glean from his phones, which he had turned over as evidence.
Natvig testified to the House Select Committee on Investigation that he viewed the interaction as “a pretty innocuous conversation between a couple gentlemen who knew each other.”
“I didn’t assume it was anything that was to do with the investigation,” Natvig added in that testimony. “We weren’t involved in the investigation, the agent wasn’t involved in the investigation, and from what I heard there was nothing that caused me concern.”
Jackley, who entered the race in March of 2021 and has been calling delegates and attending Lincoln Day dinners to build support, said he has not been focused on “whatever that element is” in regard to connections between Ravnsborg and Natvig.
Jackley traded endorsements earlier this year with Gov. Kristi Noem, who defeated Jackley in the 2018 gubernatorial primary. The governor has openly criticized Ravnsborg, who rebuffed her calls to resign from his AG post amid the crash controversy.
“I haven’t had a single delegate tell me that would change their decision-making process,” Natvig said of Noem endorsing his opponent.
‘If we have a case, we will come after you’
Since losing the primary to Noem, Jackley has worked as Haakon County State’s Attorney in Pierre and in private practice, providing counsel to billionaire credit card magnate Denny Sanford, listed in court documents as the subject of a child pornography investigation involving state and federal authorities.
On May 27, less than a month before the state GOP convention, Deputy Attorney General Brent Kempema submitted a court filing saying that the office “has completed its investigation” and “has determined that there are no prosecutable offenses within the jurisdiction of the State of South Dakota” involving Sanford.
The decision doesn’t rule out charges federally or in other jurisdictions, but it resolves a potential conflict of interest for Jackley as he seeks to retain the job of South Dakota’s top law enforcement official. Natvig was asked about the juxtaposition of DCI’s work in combatting internet crimes such as child pornography and Jackley’s representation of Sanford.
“There are certainly people who can look at what both of us are doing today and compare those things,” said Natvig. “They can see the person who is (defending Sanford) and the person who is out there doing everything he can every day to fight crime and make sure the folks at DCI have all the available tools they need.”
He then added: “Everyone deserves legal representation, but a lawyer doesn’t have to accept every client.”
In a video announcing his campaign for attorney general, Natvig said: “I don’t care who you are – if we have the evidence, if we have the case, we are coming after you, and we will win.”
Some delegates have asked him if he was referring to Sanford or even Noem, who has faced scrutiny for her involvement in her daughter’s bid for a real-estate appraiser license, a process that led to the resignation of a longtime state employee who later received a $200,000 wrongful termination settlement from the state. A state legislative panel concluded in a report last month that Noem’s daughter, Kassidy Peters, received preferential treatment.
“That line in my video applied to everyone,” said Natvig, who has four daughters with his wife, LaRae, and lives in Pierre. “I’ve spent a lot of time as a prosecutor, and my point was that if you break the law, I’ll make it clear that no one is above the law, which I’ve shown in my career. A lot of politicians tell you what you want to hear. I’m more the kind of guy who’s going to tell you the truth, and it may sting a little bit. That’s just how I am.”
Some delegates say it is difficult to judge Natvig’s candidacy on its merits because of his connection to Ravnsborg, which makes his late-starting campaign seem like a coordinated effort to work around the impeachment trial.
“I think they figured that with Jason having his trial the week before the convention, he wouldn’t be able to run the race,” Russell said. “The conclusion was that they better find another horse and then Jason could perhaps stay on in some role in the Attorney General’s Office if David wins.”
Russell said that Natvig reached out to him recently to seek his support, but Russell has already publicly supported Jackley and so didn’t return the call.
“I like David,” Russell said. “We knew each other at law school and have been colleagues. To me, though, his announcement seemed a little late in the game and came off as Jason asking him to run. I think Marty has been working very hard, I think he has the respect of law enforcement, and I think he will win the nomination handily.”
Natvig is not buying into that analysis. He has worked to gain support by stressing his focus on prosecuting drug trafficking crimes and bolstering cold case units by using the latest advancements in investigative genetic genealogy.
After noting the political adage that anything can happen at state conventions, he was asked if he would disagree with the conventional wisdom that Jackley is a heavy favorite as the state GOP gathering nears.
“I would disagree strongly,” said Natvig. “Absolutely.”