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MERCER: Nelson wins battle to ban sexual relationships

PIERRE -- I shudder to write about this. Why did Sen. Stace Nelson have to work so hard to ban legislators from sexual relationships with interns and pages?...

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PIERRE - I shudder to write about this. Why did Sen. Stace Nelson have to work so hard to ban legislators from sexual relationships with interns and pages?

Nelson, R-Fulton, had to try twice this year to get it done. And if his version of the story is accurate, he tried in the past to privately draw attention to the problem.

The joint committee on legislative procedure accepted one sentence from Nelson's proposed ban Wednesday.

That sentence said: "No legislator or legislative employee may have sexual contact with any legislative intern or page, and no legislative intern may have sexual contact with a page."

The Legislature already had a rule but it didn't cover consensual relationships. It said:

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"This prohibition against harassment also encompasses sexual harassment including unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, non-verbal, or physical conduct of a sexually harassing nature, when:

"(1) submission to the harassment is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of employment or other employment determinations, or

"(2) the harassment has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

There are other legislative rules that would have seemed to cover such situations. An entire section of rules deals with ethical behavior. It goes to considerable length:

"The people of South Dakota require that their legislators maintain the highest of moral and ethical standards as such standards are essential to assure the trust, respect and confidence of our citizens.

"Legislators have a solemn responsibility to avoid improper behavior and refrain from conduct that is unbecoming to the legislature or that is inconsistent with the Legislature's ability to maintain the respect and trust of the people it serves.

"While it is not possible to write rules to cover every circumstance, each legislator must do everything in his or her power to deal honorably with the public and with his or her colleagues and must promote an atmosphere in which ethical behavior is readily recognized as a priority and is practiced continually, without fail."

Those last two words - "without fail" - would have seemed to cover everything. But they haven't.

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The consensual relationships that former Rep. Mathew Wollmann, R-Madison, admitted to having with interns in 2015 and 2016 would have seemed to fall under "without fail."

He resigned in January after they came to light, in part through Nelson's effort.

But this was hardly the first time. Several marriages have resulted in the past few decades from affairs involving legislators that occurred during legislative sessions. There was the ugly investigation involving a senator and a page a decade ago.

It took Nelson to finally get a straightforward ban in black and white. Admire him or detest him, he isn't one to let something go.

He spent more than 20 years in military law enforcement. He is a U.S. Marine to his core and proud of it.

As he said about himself Wednesday, he is considered an expert in rape and sexual assault.

Nelson said this was an opportunity to "correct massive holes" in the conduct code for the Legislature.

Unfortunately, he was right.

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