By: Karli Healey
South Dakota politics are like a small, Midwestern town where everybody knows everybody. This gives the local scene a personal touch that you can’t find with big city politics. Second only to Montpelier, Vermont, Pierre, S.D. is one of least populated state capitals in the United States. On the banks of Missouri River, this sleepy town of 14,000 was selected to house the state capitol as a geographic compromise between the powerhouses to the east and west of the Missouri, Sioux Falls and Rapid City respectively.
Buried deep beneath its downhome coating, dark secrets are hidden by deceptive appearances. A recent example is the Pandora Papers, leaked last year to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, revealing the state as a safe harbor for the world’s ultra-wealthy. The same small-town qualities which make Pierre endearing, such as its rural charm, are what also allow elected officials to fly under the public’s radar and evade accountability to their constituents. This isn’t the wild west anymore, and no one in South Dakota should be above the scrutiny of the law.
Governor Kristi Noem is one notable example. Noem campaigned on government transparency in 2018, promising to build the most transparent administration the state had ever seen. As governor, she jet-sets around the country in the state airplane building her personal brand while spending taxpayer money on a sauna, television studio and luxury rugs for the Governor’s Mansion. But that’s when she isn’t busy teaming up with State Senator Lee Schoenbeck to purge conservatives from the state legislature, bullying state employees for her daughter’s personal gain, or vetoing the women’s fairness in sports bill to appease monied special interests. Calling Noem duplicitous is putting it lightly.
Noem’s political career was bought and paid for by donor T. Dennis Sanford. Sanford, whose name is emblazoned on stadiums and healthcare facilities throughout the Midwest, made his fortune in predatory-lending with First Premier Bank before going on to become a household name as a healthcare titan and children’s philanthropist. When former Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg came into office in 2018 as an outsider candidate, the local Argus Leader quoted him saying “It’s a good day for South Dakota. It’s a bad day to be a drug dealer” as he vowed to fight crime and human trafficking. In 2020, Ravnsborg’s office launched an investigation into the state’s wealthiest man and number one employer for possession of child pornography.
Ravnsborg permanently altered the course of state politics when he hit and killed pedestrian Joe Boever while driving home from a Republican dinner the fateful evening of September 12, 2020. Boever’s face reportedly smashed through the windshield, his glasses were later found inside of the vehicle. Ravnsborg returned to the site of the crash the following morning, where he claims to have made the first discovery of Boever’s corpse mangled in a roadside ditch, leaving many questions unanswered about what truly happened that night.
Following the historic impeachment vote in the State House, Ravnsborg’s trial in the Senate and his subsequent removal from the Attorney General office, Gov. Noem appointed interim Attorney General Mark Vargo who also happened to serve as the prosecutor in the Ravnsborg trial. AG Vargo’s first order of business was to drop the investigation into Sanford. As mentioned previously, Pierre is a small-town.
In February 2022, Noem received a mutual-endorsement from former Attorney General Marty Jackley, Sanford’s lawyer, in his bid for Attorney General. Tom Kludt’s Rolling Stone article “A State Official Killed a Man with His Car: The Story Somehow Got Darker From There” quoted an attorney for the Argus Leader who called the relationship between Noem, Jackley and Sanford, “incestuous.” At the Republican state convention in June 2022, delegates from across the state descended on Watertown, S.D, where Jackley narrowly won over David Natvig, who served as the Director of the Division of Criminal Investigation under Ravnsborg. The South Dakota Democratic Party failed to nominate a candidate during their July convention earlier this year, handing Jackley an uncontested victory in the November general election.
During the September 2022 gubernatorial debate with Dakota News Now, Noem deflected to the “disgraced former Attorney General” Ravnsborg when asked about her abuse of power allegations. She complained that the complaints were brought by Ravnsborg in retaliation against her, but that just isn’t factual. Democratic lawmakers filed the complaints with the Attorney General’s office who, in turn, referred them to the Government Accountability Board for review. According to the board’s released documents, Noem’s attorney called the complaints “nonsensical,” a “political attack,” and based on “far-fetched conspiracy theories.” The GAB referred the complaints back to the new interim Attorney General, whom Noem appointed. Vargo made the right decision by recusing himself from the investigation into the governor’s ethics, however, his legacy as the thirty-second Attorney General will be remembered by dropping the investigation into Sanford. No one in the state of South Dakota is above the law.