In a rare move, the South Dakota Senate suspended a conservative GOP state senator on Jan. 26 while not revealing the allegations against her.
Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller alleged that she’s been punished after speaking to a legislative research staffer earlier this week about her views on vaccinations.
“It has come to my attention that the issue may involve a conversation I had with staff, where I promoted my well-known stance on medical freedom and the ability of individuals to choose the best courts of medical treatment for themselves,” the senator said at a Thursday press conference.
Frye-Mueller, who has opposed vaccination requirements in schools, said she did not bring up the COVID-19 vaccine during her exchange with the aide.
The Republican-controlled Senate ended up voting 27-6 to form a committee to investigate Frye-Mueller’s conduct and in the meantime suspend her from voting or holding other rights of an elected official. Republican legislative leaders refused to comment Thursday on the allegations that led to them suspending the Senate rules and stripping their colleague of her ability to represent her constituents.
Frye-Mueller said she has not been formally presented with the allegations against her.
“I have a right to defend myself. … I know there’s an agenda behind this,” Frye-Mueller said on the Senate floor. “I have not seen anything at all that I’ve supposedly done.”
The South Dakota legislator has now been removed from the two committee assignments, Senate Local Government and Senate Health and Human Services, that she previously sat on.
The state’s legislature has become deeply divided in recent years. One of the battlegrounds between staunch conservative members and Republicans who support the political establishment has been over separate proposals to limit requirements for the COVID-19 vaccine and childhood vaccines.
Sen. Michael Rohl, the Republican lawmaker who initiated the motion to suspend Frye-Mueller, said in a statement that it was based on “serious allegations” and had been made to ensure the Legislature was creating a safe work environment for employees. He likened the Senate’s suspension to the move a business owner or human resources department would make when allegations are raised.
“The Senate will operate swiftly and diligently through the process of an investigation and provide the opportunity for due process to all parties involved,” Rohl said.
The chamber’s Republican leader, Sen. Casey Crabtree, said the legislative punishment was “brought after a lot of serious thought,” but offered little else on the allegations. Another high-ranking Republican, Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, said it was meant to “protect the decorum” of the law-making body.
One of Frye-Mueller’s Senate allies, Republican Sen. Tom Pischke, spoke against the suspension, saying it was based on a “she said-she said situation” and would deprive Frye-Mueller’s constituents of their representation in the Senate.
“Your bias towards a certain senator is going to come into play,” Pischke said on the Senate floor. “I don’t care how you care about a senator, this is principle. I would make the same speech for each and every one of you.”
Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden, who serves as the Senate’s president, also opposed the move, cautioning against the precedent of suspending an elected representative without due process. But his objections were overruled in a two-thirds majority vote by the Republican-controlled Senate.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.