South Dakota’s Senate Republican leader said Friday that a committee will investigate a suspended senator for allegedly harassing a legislative aide during an exchange over childhood vaccines and breastfeeding.
Sen. Casey Crabtree, the Senate GOP leader, had declined to provide details of the allegations against fellow Republican Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller on Thursday when the Senate voted to suspend her legislative powers. Crabtree said in a statement on Friday afternoon that Senate Republicans this week had received a “detailed report” from a staff member of the Legislative Research Council accusing Frye-Mueller of “inappropriate behavior and harassment related to private maternal matters, including childhood vaccines and breastfeeding.”
Republican legislative leaders had previously refused to release any details on the allegations. Frye-Mueller had told reporters Thursday that she had shared her views on vaccinations with the aide, but Crabtree said her public statements did not match with what she told Senate Republican leaders in a private discussion or what the legislative aide reported.
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A Select Committee on Discipline and Expulsion will be formed to investigate the allegations and is expected to complete its work next week, Crabtree said. The committee, which will be chaired by Republican Sen. David Wheeler, is expected to deliver a recommendation to the Senate.
During Thursday’s Senate hearing that led to her suspension, Frye-Mueller said the action deprived her of due process. Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden, who presides over the Senate, also cautioned against punishing a senator without first conducting an investigation.
Crabtree, in his statement, pushed back on those objections: “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,” he said.
Crabtree said the investigative committee’s meetings would be open to the public, except when they delve into issues that are private by state law, and that the committee’s final report would be a public record.
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The committee will be made up of seven Republicans and two Democrats.
Frye-Mueller is a part of a right-wing group of lawmakers and has proposed legislation removing school requirements for childhood vaccines.
Vaccines have been championed as public health success stories, but rates among kindergarteners have dropped nationwide in recent years. Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that’s due to decreased confidence in vaccines and disruptions to routine health care during the pandemic.
Falling vaccination rates open the door to outbreaks of diseases once thought to be in the rearview mirror, experts say.