Suspended senator, legislative staffer set to testify to Senate Ethics Committee
During the initial meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Discipline and Expulsion, Sen. David Wheeler announced plans to hear from both sides in the Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller complaint on Jan. 31.
PIERRE, S.D. — The first meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Discipline and Expulsion, tasked with investigating Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller’s conduct during an interaction with a Legislative Research Council staffer, lasted all of five minutes on Monday, Jan. 30.
After taking a short oath for their committee duties, the nine senators on the ethics committee set plans to hear from the senator and staffer in a closed executive session on Tuesday evening.
“The employee will be testifying before the committee in executive session, during which Sen. Frye-Mueller and her counsel, the employee’s legal counsel and any senator can be present,” Sen. David Wheeler, of Huron, the chair of the committee, said. “The redacted transcript of the session will then be made and released publicly.”
A final report is expected by the end of the week.
“We thank the state employee for bringing this matter to our attention,” Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree wrote in a press release last Friday revealing more details of the incident. “Our goal is to create a safe work environment for staff and legislators, and an environment where employees feel safe bringing concerns forward. All allegations of harassment must be taken seriously. There will be due process afforded to all parties as this matter moves forward.”
Frye-Mueller, while not fully removed from the Senate, will not be able to exercise any legislative privileges until the investigation is over. She filed a lawsuit to try to reverse that decision, citing First Amendment infringements.
Legislative rules require avoiding “improper behavior” and refraining from “conduct that is unbecoming to the Legislature,” among members. In the Senate, breaking those rules can result in the formation of a Select Committee on Discipline and Expulsion, a nine-member committee appointed by leadership and tasked with investigating this sort of misconduct.
The committee is chaired by Wheeler; the other appointees include six Republican senators:
- Jim Bolin, of Canton;
- Helene Duhamel, of Rapid City;
- Brent Hoffman, of Sioux Falls
- Erin Tobin, of Winner;
- Dean Wink, of Howes
- Sydney Davis, of Burbank
and two Democratic senators:
- Reynold Nesiba, of Sioux Falls
- Liz Larson, of Sioux Falls.
"We take this matter seriously and want to be as transparent and open as possible,” Duhamel said. “We are developing a process that is fair to all parties and I'm confident the committee can come to a final resolution."
In a short press conference last week, Frye-Mueller attempted to explain some of the circumstances surrounding the stripping of her committees, which occurred as a preliminary disciplinary measure during the meeting of the Senate on Wednesday, Jan. 25.
“It has come to my attention that the issue may involve a conversation I had with staff, where I promoted my well-known stance of medical freedom and the ability of individuals to choose medical treatment for themselves," she said.
In the Friday release from leadership, that framing was disputed.
“[Frye-Mueller] was given an opportunity to speak to the Senate Republican Leadership on Jan. 25,” the release reads. “Comments made by Sen. Frye-Mueller in that private discussion are inconsistent with her public statements and the report received from the LRC staff member.”
Frye-Mueller, a business owner, was first elected to the legislature in 2016, serving two terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2020.
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.