South Dakota Senate investigates one of its ownby Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio
Members of the South Dakota Senate heard from four witnesses in the first day of an unusual legislative hearing. A select committee is hearing testimony into alleged sexual misconduct by Sen. Dan Sutton. Sutton, a Democrat who represents Flandreau, is accused of groping a teenage legislative page during the 2006 legislative session. The very first witness lawmakers heard from was the former legislative page.
Sioux Falls, S.D. — The Senate hearing is part legislative event and part courtroom. Like many legislative hearings all of the participants sit at long tables in front of a microphone. But this proceeding is very much like a trial. There are lawyers, witnesses who have been subpoenaed and testimony on a sensitive subject.
The first witness was the now 19-year-old who made the allegation. Austin Wiese went to Pierre last February as a high school page. Pages spend one week serving at the state Capitol and have to find their own housing.
Austin Wiese accepted an offer from family friend Sen. Dan Sutton to share Sutton's hotel suite for the week he was in Pierre. Wiese says he was surprised to find there was only a king-sized bed in the hotel room but he says he trusted Sutton.
The first night Wiese says Sutton slept close and touched his back. Jim McMahon, a lawyer for the senate questioned Wiese. The teen says the second night he went to bed with two layers of shorts on and that the Senator touched Wiese's penis through his clothing.
"What did he do when he had his hand on your penis?" McMahon asked.
"He had his hand on there and I could tell he was shaking too," Wiese answered. "It was there for like 30 seconds to a minute and then he started shifting his hand back and forth."
"Did you move?" McMahon asked.
"I didn't move," Wiese replied. "I laid there in shock and fear."
Wiese then called his cousin to come and get him. He didn't go back to the hotel room again.
He later told his father, Dennis Wiese, a former Democratic candidate for governor. They met with the attorney general who reported the incident to the Division of Criminal Investigation. That was nearly a year ago. No criminal charges have been filed.
Sen. Dan Sutton's lawyer painted Wiese to be an outgoing young man. Mike Butler asked Wiese why he didn't sleep on the fold-out couch in the hotel room. Butler also asked why Austin Wiese never told Dan Sutton to stop.
"Did you ever say, 'Dan, get your hand off me. Dan, what are you doing? Dan, get on your own side of the bed.'" Butler asked. "I'm just curious how was it that you, given the personality you have, why you would be so inhibited in making a statement to that effect to Sen. Sutton."
Austin Wiese replied, "Primarily it was because I was put in a situation that I had never been in and I don't think anyone should ever have to experience. You get put in that. You freeze and you know if you say something it's going to be awkward if you say it or not."
Testimony is scheduled to continue for two more days. The Senate's Executive Committee expects to hear from a total of 12 witnesses.
Lawyers for Sen. Dan Sutton will present his defense. They say the senator didn't do anything illegal. The committee will make a report to the full senate early next week with its recommendation to either expel, discipline, censure or exonerate Sen. Dan Sutton.