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South Dakota Senate suspends lawmaker

Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller speaks to fellow Senators before they voted to suspend her on Jan. 26, 2023.
Lee Strubinger
Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller speaks to fellow Senators before they voted to suspend her on Jan. 26, 2023.

Senators have suspended Republican Julie Frye-Mueller from the chamber.

The move comes one day after she was removed from committees.

It is still unclear what Senators are investigating. Chamber leaders said they were made aware of a “serious personnel allegation” and are acting quickly.

“It does not remove the Senator from office," said Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck. " It’s what any employer would do if addressing these issues. It’s a suspension.”

On the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Frye-Mueller said there’s an agenda behind her suspension. Frye-Mueller did not clarify that agenda, nor taken questions. The Republican from District 30 has butted heads with Senate leadership since she was elected to the chamber in 2020.

In prepared remarks, Frye-Mueller said the issue may center around a conversation she had with legislative staff where she promoted her “well known” position of medical freedom. She said she did not talk about the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It is a sad day in America when advancing freedom becomes a crime," Frye-Mueller said. "I will continue to keep the public, and my wonderful constituents, abreast of the situation as we fight for the Mt. Rushmore district’s right to fair representation at our state capitol.”

In a rare rebuke of Senate actions, Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden took exception to stripping the voting rights of a duly elected Senator.

“We’ve put the cart ahead of the horse, for suspending a member and taking their ability to represent the people that elected them to serve in that office away from them before they’ve had a jury of their peers,” Rhoden said.

Outside of statements, leadership is not commenting on the incident.

Republican Sen. Dean Wink voted against the suspension.

“I would have voted to establish a committee,” Wink said. “But I don’t think it was fair to her to suspend her without having any due process.”

Rapid City Republican Sen. Helene Duhamel is a majority whip. She said the Senate will move on the investigation fast.

“We’re going to figure out the rules and get a process so that is decided by a group in here,” Duhamel said. “We don’t want this to drag out a long time.”

The move by Senator's comes after years of Legislative Research Council staff retention problems. In 2020, Wenzel Cummings, then-chief legal counsel for the LRC, announced he was quitting because of treatment by the legislature.

"I decided at the end of session that I did not want to waste the best years of my career working for this body,” Cummings said in 2020.

On Jan. 10 of this year, lawmakers received a memo spelling out guidelines for interacting with LRC staff.

“If LRC staff have reason to view legislative behavior to be inappropriate, that staff member will inform the respective supervisor and the director. Assessing the facts and situation, the director will decide whether the occurrence requires the attention of the legislator’s respective presiding officer and caucus leader," the memo said.

Frye-Mueller’s future in the state Senate hinges on the outcome of the investigation.

Republican Sen. Casey Crabtree is the Senate Majority Leader. He said there will be “due process in public with a goal to complete the process early next week.”

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.
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