Trial-of-the-session in South Dakota comes to close with suspended Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller reinstated
“Let’s put this in the rearview mirror,” Sen. Michael Diedrich, a Rapid City Republican said.
PIERRE, S.D. — Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, the Rapid City lawmaker who was suspended last week for an interaction with a legislative staffer, has been reinstated into the South Dakota Legislature, ending a bizarre, seven-day saga that leaves more questions than answers.
“All of the senators who attended [the closed session] were able to see the effect the incident had on the employee,” Sen. David Wheeler, of Huron, who chaired the committee tasked with investigating the complaint, said to begin floor debate. “In adopting these reports we clearly say we believe her. We believe misconduct happened. And that some sort of discipline is in order.”
The decision from the Senate to immediately end her suspension — with some disciplinary caveats — on Wednesday, Feb. 1, came as the chamber, by a 33-1 vote, adopted the final report from the ethics committee charged with investigating the complaint of harassment levied at Frye-Mueller by a staffer with the Legislative Research Council.
She had been suspended from her duties as a lawmaker since last Thursday, and Wheeler during his speech recognized that time as part of her punishment.
In addition to reinstatement, the report formally reprimands Frye-Mueller for harassment that “had the effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual employee's work performance and creating an intimidating working environment.”
In that vein, her work with the Legislative Research Council, which is tasked with aiding lawmakers in the drafting of bills and other legislative duties, will be limited to contact with Director Reed Holwegner or his “designees” for the rest of session.
Sen. Tom Pischke, of Dell Rapids, the lone vote against adopting the motion, used his time during floor debate to again question the constitutionality of suspending Frye-Mueller prior to a full investigation.
The action on the Senate floor Wednesday follows some four hours of testimony into the late evening hours on Tuesday, where the nine senators on the Senate Committee on Discipline and Expulsion listened as Frye-Mueller presented her own view of the interaction last week between her and a staffer — a much-sanitized rendition of the events in the staffer’s account.
She said she was “shocked” at the version of events recounted by the Legislative Research Council staffer in a redacted document released by the ethics committee earlier this week.
While both sides of the story included discussions of breastfeeding, vaccinations and a child’s health, Frye-Mueller’s account included a significantly friendlier and less explicit version of the meeting inside the Capitol between the staffer, the senator and the senator’s husband, Mike Mueller.
“I was so furious by what we read,” she said of the document widely circulated in the media and added to the committee’s public record. “It was disgusting for us.”
The suspended senator said she “absolutely did not” say that the child would “die from vaccines,” as the staffer’s redacted document claimed. Nor, Frye-Mueller claimed, did she make any suggestive gestures to her breasts or discuss raunchy details of breastfeeding.
“To be accused of saying something as filthy as [the staffer] said about the nursing stuff,” she said during her testimony. “That is not me. I never said it.”
Though several senators, including Sen. Erin Tobin, of Winner, used the subsequent question portion to drill down into the specifics of the conversation, Frye-Mueller remained insistent that the issues of vaccination and breastfeeding were raised by the staffer, a claim backed up by the follow-up testimony of her husband.
A full piecing-together of the exact conversation did not materialize through the lengthy testimony, which included Frye-Mueller, Mueller and the senator's counsel, former House Speaker Steve Haugaard.
The staffer and her counsel had given their side of the story during a closed executive session before the ethics committee reconvened on Tuesday evening.
In a separate set of questions, Sen. Helene Duhamel, of Rapid City, asked if Frye-Mueller was willing to apologize to the staffer. Frye-Mueller claimed that last week she had met with Duhamel, who is a Senate whip, and asked if the three — Duhamel, Frye-Mueller and the staffer — could have a private meeting to discuss the allegations. That meeting never happened, and Wheeler confirmed that a similar request had been made to him.
“Before we had the written statement, the senator had asked me for the opportunity to have a private conversation with the staffer,” Wheeler said. “And at that point, I did not think that would be in the best interest of the parties involved.”
A similar thread of argument from Frye-Mueller’s defense claimed that the staff member was not consulted as the Senate moved forward with suspending Frye-Mueller and forming an ethics committee.
Despite a lack of full closure on the exact nature of the interaction, the near-unanimous vote on Wednesday reflected a Senate looking to move forward.
“Let’s put this in the rearview mirror,” Sen. Michael Diedrich, of Rapid City, the assistant majority leader in the chamber, said.
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.