Jason Ravnsborg, the attorney general of South Dakota, is facing an investigation into a Sept. 12 accident in which he fatally struck a pedestrian with his car. Since that time, news outlets have found that Ravnsborg had previously been cited for speeding eight times, as well as other driving infractions. During his time in office, he’s also posted pictures on Facebook that were clearly taken from behind the wheel.
Why didn’t that information come out prior to Ravnborg’s election to the office in 2018? Perhaps it’s because he was nominated by delegates at a GOP state convention, rather than having to face a wider pool of voters during a primary election.
Lack of voter scrutiny is something that Ravnsborg has in common with the other two state attorneys general who have been in trouble recently. Like Ravnsborg, Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, who was temporarily disbarred this spring, won nomination to the job at a state party convention. Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, who resigned following publication of a story detailing his having sent hundreds of sometimes suggestive texts to a younger state employee, was appointed to the job directly by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
A lack of vetting — including the decline in state-level media coverage — means a history of problems might not be found out until and unless an AG has trouble in office.
Although state attorneys general have emerged as political and policy powerhouses — routinely suing the president and acting as de facto national regulators in areas such as pharmaceuticals and finance — they don’t receive nearly the same scrutiny as candidates for governor, arguably their only peers at the state level.
“AGs continue to fly under the radar,” says Paul Nolette, a political scientist at Marquette University. “It’s a more high-profile position, and yet the overall vetting has perhaps not quite caught up to the importance of the position.”
There are some clear patterns involved with the half-dozen or so other AGs who have gotten into political or legal trouble in recent years. They mostly come from one-party states and they almost always run into problems, if they're going to, during their first terms, when inexperience tends to show. Many AGs are serving in their first statewide positions and some have never previously been elected to anything.
“You get some people in there that have some skeletons that are not discovered until it all blows up,” Nolette says.
Their Problems Aren’t Unique
Relatively few AGs ever get into serious trouble, but being in power can breed a kind of arrogance that can lead to testing or even flouting legal and behavioral barriers. In that regard, AGs aren’t unique among politicians. Hill and Clarkson are certainly not alone among elected officials in facing allegations of sexual harassment.
Ravnsborg is not even the first South Dakota politician to be involved in a fatal car accident. In 2004, Congressman Bill Janklow, a former attorney general and governor, was convicted of manslaughter following the death of a motorcyclist Janklow struck after running through a stop sign.
That same year, Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager was arrested for drunk driving. Her son, Josh Kaul, is the state’s current attorney general. Kaul defeated Attorney General Brad Schimel in 2018, who had won the office in 2014 despite having a 1990 drunk driving offense on his record.
A lack of vetting — including the decline in state-level media coverage — means a history of problems might not be found out until and unless an AG has trouble in office. Once in power, the idea that a state’s chief law enforcement officer may have broken the law naturally draws considerable attention.
The heightened profile of contemporary AGs means infractions can attract national media notice, as has been the case with Ravnsborg. “This sort of thing has occurred even though AGs are more in the limelight now,” says Nolette, author of Federalism on Trial, a book about the rising influence of state AGs. “When things like this blow up, in some ways naturally they get more attention.”
Sticking It Out
Sometimes AGs know immediately there’s no chance they can weather the storm. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman stepped down in 2018, within hours of The New Yorker’s online publication of a story detailing allegations from four women that he’d physically abused them.
But often attorneys general, like other politicians, refuse to recognize that it’s time to go, even when they’re clearly in trouble. In Indiana, Hill has long resisted calls to step down from members of his own party, including Gov. Eric Holcomb. In May, the state supreme court suspended Hill’s law license for 30 days, following a two-year investigation regarding accusations from four women that Hill had groped them at a party in 2018. Hill denied that he had touched them inappropriately, but the court was convinced he had committed battery.
In 2015, Pennsylvania’s supreme court stripped Attorney General Kathleen Kane of her law license. Kane had been charged with multiple offenses, including perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. It wasn’t until her conviction the following year, however, that Kane resigned.
Kane had not been the Democratic Party’s first choice for the job. At least, not all of the party. Former Congressman Patrick Murphy enjoyed much of the party establishment’s support, but he’d angered former President Bill Clinton by endorsing Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential race. Kane’s husband had been a big donor to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Bill Clinton campaigned heavily for Kane, helping propel the little-known assistant Lackawanna County district attorney into the job.
Sometimes, AGs can survive scandal. In 2015, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was indicted in a securities fraud case. Paxton has always maintained his innocence, saying the charges were politically motivated. Although the indictment is five years old, the case has never gone to trial. Paxton won re-election in 2018 by a bare majority.
Last year, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted he’d worn blackface as an undergraduate. At the time, Gov. Ralph Northam was facing pressure to step down amidst his own blackface scandal, including a call for his resignation from Herring. With all three of Virginia’s statewide elected officials facing scandal — two women accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault — Democrats were leery of letting the post of governor fall to the state House speaker, at that time Republican Kirk Cox. Fairfax denied the allegations and all three have stayed on the job.
On Sept. 2, Herring informed other Democrats that he’ll seek a third term as AG next year, rather than running for governor.
Hill, the Indiana AG, also sought another term this year. “Over these past two years, I have been the subject of relentless attacks and smears, the likes of which few have endured,” Hill said in his taped address to this year’s GOP state convention, which was held virtually. “Like President Trump, I have faced accusations and investigations designed to destroy me politically.”
Playing the victim card wasn’t enough. Rather than renominate a damaged candidate, Indiana Republicans decided it was safer to go with someone they knew and felt they could trust. Hill lost the nomination to Todd Rokita, a former Indiana secretary of state and member of Congress.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the circumstances of Curtis Hill’s nomination.