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Stace Nelson, other SD House member are punished by GOP leader

Stace Nelson

PIERRE -- A member of the South Dakota Legislature was moved to a different seat Thursday as punishment by the House of Representatives presiding officer.

In a separate action, he and a second legislator also were booted from the House Republican caucus.

Those steps were the latest in a series of incidents that have escalated since the 2011 session.

House Speaker Val Rausch said Thursday he reassigned Rep. Stace Nelson, RFulton, to a new seat in the House as punishment, because Nelson verbally abused another House member in the chamber Tuesday afternoon.

Rausch, R-Big Stone City, said he took the action after receiving confirmation from witnesses who saw the altercation.

The tension was obvious Thursday afternoon in the House chamber. There was little small talk, and several state Highway Patrol officers were highly visible in the halls around the House chamber.

Rausch also had a security shadow.

"Quite frankly, he's scaring everybody," Rausch said about Nelson.

Nelson is a retired member of the U.S. Marine Corps and is the tallest and physically largest member of the Legislature.

He speaks loudly and passionately during his many floor speeches, and he frequently comments on Internet blogs.

Last year Nelson won a friendly pistol-marksmanship competition during legislative session and displayed the trophy atop his House desk.

Rausch privately directed the reseating Thursday.

He had Nelson move from a desk in the middle of the 70-member House and take the desk of Rep. Betty Olson, R-Prairie City, placing Nelson in the front row directly below where the speaker presides.

The switch took place after the conclusion of House business Thursday.

The name plates were changed, and Olson put her belongings into her new spot, next to the desk of Rep. Fred Romkema, R-Spearfish, before she left for the day.

"I used to be able to tell people I was at the head of the class," Olson joked as she left the Capitol.

Rausch declined to identify the House member who was on the receiving end of Nelson's words during the Tuesday incident.

Rausch confirmed that he left a message at Nelson's desk asking Nelson to come to Rausch's office at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. Nelson said he didn't return to the Capitol until about that time on Thursday morning and didn't spot the note until shortly before 10 a.m.

Nelson said he didn't see Rausch until a 10 a.m. meeting of the House committee on local government. After the committee meeting ended, Rausch asked Nelson to see him at his office.

Nelson declined, according to both men's versions of the events, and Nelson told Rausch he should put anything he had to say into a memo to Nelson.

Rausch refused to recognize Nelson when Nelson stood to make comments on a legislative bill Thursday afternoon. Rausch said he purposely ignored Nelson. Nelson said it was obvious that Rausch did so.

"He's not talking to me. I'm not talking to him," Rausch said.

Rausch's discipline of Nelson was separate officially from the decision by House Republican leader David Lust to expel Nelson from the House Republican caucus Tuesday.

Nelson didn't go to the closed-door caucus meeting that day. Nelson said that he and Rep. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs, had a previously scheduled meeting with constituents. Nelson said he sent a text message to Lust, telling Lust he wouldn't be attending.

That message was sent approximately 10 minutes after the scheduled 1 p.m. start of the meeting.

Lust also banned Russell from the caucus. Russell hadn't attended any of the daily meetings this year. Russell had been told that he would be banned unless he started coming on a regular basis.

Nelson and Russell are the two legislators who authored a December letter accusing House Republican leaders, including Rausch and Lust, of obstructing and spying on legislators during the 2011 session.

A special investigation hearing subsequently was held by a three-member subcommittee of the Legislature's Executive Board. The investigation report found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Russell said Thursday he hadn't received official word that he's been kicked out of the caucus but had heard through back-channels that was the case. Nelson said he received a telephone message from Lust at 4:45 p.m. Wednesday informing Nelson he was out of the caucus.

Nelson said his first response to the re-seating was "wow."

Last fall Rausch removed Nelson from his assignment on the House committee on agriculture so that a newly appointed legislator, David Scott, could be placed on the committee. Nelson was switched to the local government committee instead.

Rausch said Scott, R-Geddes, was well qualified to serve because he is a farmer and Nelson had become openly distrustful of state Agriculture Secretary Walt Bones in connection to a large-scale dairy development in Nelson's home area.

Rausch said Thursday he considered stripping Nelson of all committee assignments as a tougher punishment for the Tuesday incident but decided to see whether the re-seating would be sufficient.