South Dakota lawmakers learn from national scandal
South Dakota lawmakers are breaking new ground. Never before has a single chamber been called into a special session. That will happen in late November when the state Senate meets to investigate one of its own members for alleged misconduct. While lawmakers say it's their job to investigate, others say it's an over reaction to a national scandal.
Sioux Falls, S.D. — U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Florida, resigned in September amid allegations that he solicited a congressional page. Weeks later, similar allegations arose around a South Dakota lawmaker.
The claim is that a state senator acted inappropriately with a teenage page during South Dakota's most recent legislative session. The Attorney General confirms that Sen. Dan Sutton, D-Flandreau, is being investigated for groping a 17-year-old in his hotel room. The teen's father is making the accusations. Dan Sutton has not been charged or arrested for any crime. It's not even clear what's being investigated.
Sutton's lawyer says his client has done nothing wrong. In published reports, Mike Butler says the page was staying with Sutton in his hotel room. The page's family approved of the arrangement. Butler calls the special session an attempt to bully his client.
Before leaders from both political parties called for a special session, they asked for Sutton to resign. He refused.
State Sen. Garry Moore, D-Yankton, says the public is watching the legislature.
"To not act on something as serious as this is derelict in duty," Moore says.
Moore explains that the special session is not a criminal trial and it's not a civil trial. He says this is a case of an employer looking into a complaint of alleged misconduct.
"It is clear in the work place through the federal government that any alleged harassment needs to be addressed. If a second or subsequent allegation of harassment comes forward and nothing was done the first time than you're open to civil litigation," says Moore.
But some who watch South Dakota politics say it's more than the Senate protecting itself from civil lawsuits. It's about image and national scandals. Bill Richardson, chairman of the University of South Dakota political science department says people are aware of the Foley scandal and how it was handled. Richardson says state lawmakers are trying to handle these allegations differently.
"What they're trying to demonstrate is they have learned from how the Foley scandal was handled and they're demonstrating they will handle it much more openly and much more quickly with appropriate attention to the accused," says Richardson.
The state Senate has several options in the case of alleged inappropriate behavior. Attorney General Larry Long says lawmakers have constitutional authority to expel members who have acted inappropriately. Long says the range of sanctions runs from exoneration to expulsion.
Some believe deciding how to conduct the special session will take time since the rules are still being debated. Some lawmakers want the session closed to the public and the press while others don't. One lawmaker says he'll make a motion to end the proceedings before they even start.
There currently aren't any rules of conduct for lawmakers. Some believe that what's sure to come of the session are written rules.
Republican Gov. Mike Rounds says the allegations may also lead lawmakers to review policies that deal with the high school and college students who serve as pages and interns. Pages are typically high school seniors who spend two weeks running errands for lawmakers. Most stay with host families in Pierre.
State Sen. Dan Sutton is seeking re-election to his fourth term in the state senate. His Republican opponent refuses to talk about the allegations. It's unclear whether the special session will even take place if Sutton loses his Senate seat.
- All Things Considered, 10/31/2006, 5:20 p.m.