LRC staffer: Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller said staffer’s child would 'die from those vaccines'
The Legislative Research Council staffer who made a complaint against Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, of Rapid City, released a full account of the incident in a Jan. 30 statement.
PIERRE, S.D. — Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller made a series of comments criticizing a Legislative Research Council staffer’s choice to vaccinate her child, according to a redacted account of the incident given by the staffer and released Monday, Jan. 30, by the Senate Select Committee on Discipline and Expulsion.
Later that day, the committee met for the first time, setting a Tuesday, Jan. 31, hearing in closed session between Frye-Mueller, the staffer and counsel for each. The redacted account of the incident was also entered into the committee's public record.
The staffer, who was helping Frye-Mueller on a bill relating to child immunizations, said a meeting one week earlier with the senator and her husband, Mike Mueller, who heads the conservative organization Citizens for Liberty, devolved into a series of criticisms on her decision to vaccinate her child.
“After the discussion on the bill was finished, Sen. Frye-Mueller asked, ‘how is baby?’ I answered that he was doing well,” the anonymous statement written by the staffer reads. “Sen. Frye-Mueller proceeded to ask, ‘did you vaccinate?’ I told her, ‘Yes.’ Without allowing me to elaborate further, she proceeded to point her finger at me and aggressively say that this will cause him issues. She said my baby, ‘could get down syndrome or autism.’ She further went on to say that ‘he will die from those vaccines.’”
As the conversation continued, the staffer wrote that Frye-Mueller veered into a questioning of whether the staffer was breastfeeding her child, ending in a suggestive gesture from the senator.
“I was told by Sen. Frye-Mueller that my husband could ‘suck on my breasts’ to get milk to come in,” said the staffer, who was using formula with her child. “She indicated, ‘a good time for that is at night.’ She proceeded to provide hand gestures to her chest area and motion to her husband to see if he agreed. He smiled and nodded.”
Frye-Mueller and her husband have not yet commented on whether the character of the interaction matched the staffer's account.
The revelations come on the same day that the Senate Select Committee on Discipline and Expulsion is set to meet for the first time and set rules for the planned week-long investigation.
In a news release revealing new details in the events surrounding the indefinite suspension of Frye-Mueller from her legislative duties, Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree announced the nine senators who will lead the chamber’s investigation into the matter.
“We thank the state employee for bringing this matter to our attention,” Crabtree wrote in a news release last week. “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.”
A final report is expected by Friday.
Frye-Mueller, while not fully removed from the Senate, will not be able to exercise any legislative privileges until the investigation is over.
During Senate sessions on both Monday and Tuesday of this week, Sen. Tom Pischke, of Dell Rapids, has made motions to reinstate the suspended senator. On Tuesday, that vote failed 22-11, a similar result to the day before.
On her end, Frye-Mueller has initiated a lawsuit against Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck, of Watertown, seeking reinstatement. In it, she argues that her conversation with the staffer was political speech protected by the First Amendment, and that her first-of-its-kind suspension came without due process.
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 Republican Sen. David Wheeler, of Huron; the other appointees include six Republican senators:
- Jim Bolin, of Canton;
- Helene Duhamel, of Rapid City;
- Brent Hoffman, of Sioux Falls
- Tim Reed, of Brookings;
- 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 news conference on Jan. 26, Frye-Mueller attempted to some of the circumstances surrounding the stripping of her committees, which occurred as a preliminary disciplinary measure during the meeting of the Senate on 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 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.