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Kristi Noem names Mark Vargo as interim SD Attorney General after he successfully led Ravnsborg conviction

With Clay County State’s Attorney Alexis Tracy by his side, Vargo successfully argued against Ravnsborg and his counsel, Sioux Falls attorney Mike Butler and impeachment defense expert Ross Garber.

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Prosecutor Mark Vargo presents an opening argument during the Ravnborg impeachment trial on Tuesday, June 21, 2022 at the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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PIERRE, S.D. — The prosecutor who led the state’s argument to convict South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg is now serving as the state’s top law enforcement officer.

Mark Vargo received the nod from Gov. Kristi Noem, the Department of Public Safety announced Wednesday morning.

Serving as the Pennington County State’s Attorney since 2013, Vargo has roughly three decades of professional and public legal experience. The Princeton and Georgetown graduate has served as an assistant state’s attorney for Dade County (Fla.) as well as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of South Dakota.

In addition to being named South Dakota’s Prosecutor of the Year in 2015, he was also nominated for a U.S. Department of Justice’s Director’s Award in 2010. In the Rapid City area, he’s served as an adjunct professor, high school debate coach and youth soccer coach.

“Mark Vargo returns integrity, experience and stability to the Attorney General’s Office. He is an outstanding prosecutor who has the respect of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors statewide,” Noem said in a statement. “Mark will provide the leadership the office needs until the next Attorney General is elected in November and takes office in January.”

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Vargo began his interim term immediately upon Tuesday’s announcement.

“I am honored to have been asked by Governor Noem to serve as the Attorney General,” said Vargo. “I have worked closely with the Attorney General’s office in the past and have a high respect for the abilities of the staff. My goal is to provide office members the necessary support so they can keep doing their job and honoring the rule of law for the citizens of South Dakota.”

Members of the Pennington County Commission were not immediately available to discuss what’s next for the position of the Pennington County State’s Attorney.

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Former Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg showed no emotion as the verdict of his impeachment trial is announced during at the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Vargo led Ravnsborg’s conviction before the state Senate

Last week, Vargo was the lead prosecutor in the Senate impeachment trial against the former attorney general.

With Clay County State’s Attorney Alexis Tracy by his side, Vargo successfully argued against Ravnsborg and his counsel, Sioux Falls attorney Mike Butler and impeachment defense expert Ross Garber.

“Those misdemeanors [Ravnsborg was convicted of] are absolutely clear. They are matters that Attorney General Ravnsborg have taken responsibility for in a court of law,” Butler summarized in his closing argument. “The words 'only a misdemeanor,’ with respect to the death of a human being, are offensive and in this case are misleading. Joe Boever lost his life. And he lost his life because of a pattern of conduct.”

Vargo tore into Garber — who has a history of defending high-ranking state officials across the country in their impeachments — citing a major caveat Garber left out in his opening statement.

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Ross Garber, known for defending government officials in impeachment proceedings, presents his opening argument in defense of Jason Ravnsborg during the state's first-ever impeachment trial at the South Dakota State Capitol on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

“I would point out that Mr. Garber’s analysis of when impeachment is appropriate ignores a very important matter — which is a bunch of resignations. Mr. Garber has now represented five governors where formal proceedings were initiated, and three of those five resigned,” Vargo said in closing. “If we defer the decision to their resignation, we are relying on people who have demonstratively done bad things to make a moral decision about what the punishment should be.”

But with the most emphasis, Vargo argued out that Ravnsborg was undeniably treated differently because of his position as the attorney general, pointing to his use of a sheriff’s personal vehicle, a lack of immediate interviews, a lack of immediate substance testing and more.

“Jason was treated differently. It’s certainly true that he’s on the news more than you and I would be. There’s a certain degree of scrutiny that comes with public office. If you cant handle that, you probably shouldn’t be in elected office,” Vargo said. “He did not get a blood test while he was on scene. He was loaned the sheriff’s personal vehicle. He’s not questioned on-scene the night of. Sheriff Volek doesn’t ask him anything. He’s not even questioned the next day.”

“Was he treated differently? Yeah, absolutely he was,” Vargo continued. “(Senators) should decide it as you see appropriate in fulfilling the duties of your office. Impeachment and criminal proceedings are a separate matter, and should be treated as such.”

Ultimately, Senators bought into Vargo’s case, convicting Ravnsborg on both charges articles of impeachment while also unanimously voting to bar him from holding future public office.

Vargo will serve as the state’s attorney general until Jan. 6, 2023, one day before the next elected attorney general will be sworn in.

The state's Republican party nominated former Attorney General Marty Jackley for the office. Though the Democratic party could nominate someone at their convention July 8-9 in Fort Pierre, no Democrats have announced their candidacy.

More on Jason Ravnsborg...
On Aug. 22, a state ethics board referred a complaint to the Division of Criminal Investigations for an investigation into whether Gov. Kristi Noem had misused the state airplane. Shortly thereafter, calls began coming in for Mark Vargo, the Noem-appointed interim attorney general, to recuse himself from the investigation. On Sept. 9, Vargo obliged.

A South Dakota native, Hunter joined Forum Communications Company as a reporter for the Mitchell (S.D.) Republic in June 2021. After over a year in Mitchell, he moved to Milwaukee, where he now works as a digital reporter for Forum News Service, focusing on regional news that impacts the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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