South Dakota

South Dakota Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller Benched in ‘Suckling’ Advice Scandal

PIERRE, South Dakota — State lawmakers have been consumed by a bizarre scandal after a lawmaker allegedly stepped well over the line and gave a female employee unsolicited advice on COVID vaccines and breastfeeding, including suggesting she breastfeed her husband.

State Senator Julie Frye-Mueller, a Republican from Rapid City, was suspended from her committee duties and stripped of her voting rights last week after the incident was first reported to Senate leadership.

Frye-Mueller, who is part of a far-right caucus, is now suing to have her voting rights restored – although the unnamed staffer released stunning new details about their conversation on Monday.

In a statement, the staffer, who works for the Legislative Research Council, said Frye-Mueller and her husband came to her office on Jan. 24. She said that after the bill was discussed, the senator asked about her young son if she had been vaccinated.

“I told her ‘yes.’ Without allowing me to elaborate further, she pointed the finger at me and aggressively said it would cause him problems,” the worker said. She added Frye-Mueller told her people they were being used as “guinea pigs for big pharma,” warned that she was “taking God’s gift of immunity from your son,” and falsely claimed the child could have Down syndrome or get autism or “die from these vaccines”.

I was told by Senator Frye-Mueller that my husband could “suck on my breasts” to get milk in.

The worker went on to say that lawmakers asked her if she was breastfeeding, and when she said she was formula-feeding, she received more unwanted advice.

“I was told by Senator Frye-Mueller that my husband could suck on my breasts to get the milk in. She stated that ‘a good time for this is at night’. She proceeded to make hand gestures to her chest area, showing her husband if he agreed. He smiled and nodded,” she wrote.

The staffer said the senator then became even more emotional and aggressive and tearfully told her to stop vaccinating the infant. She said she was aware of twins who had been harmed by a vaccine and asked if the woman wanted this to happen to her child. The employee told her she would think about it.

“I did this in hopes that it would end the conversation and not upset her further,” she wrote.

Although the investigation into Frye-Mueller’s behavior became public last week, the full details of the allegations did not emerge until Monday. The employee is scheduled to testify behind closed doors before the Senate Discipline and Expulsion Committee on Tuesday.

Republicans have complete control of the South Dakota state government, holding a 31-4 lead in the Senate and a 63-7 majority in the House of Representatives. Republicans have been governors since 1979. Senate leaders appointed seven Republicans and two Democrats to serve on the committee.

While they rarely have to fight with statehouse Democrats, the South Dakota GOP has a long history of family feuds. Last year it indicted and removed Republican Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg after a protracted investigation into a fatal accident in 2020 that killed a pedestrian.

During the 2022 session, Gov. Kristi Noem feuded with fellow Republicans over Ravnsborg and other issues, with then-speaker Spencer Gosch saying the governor used hardball tactics to get her way in Pierre.

Frye-Mueller, who is serving her second term, is a member of the South Dakota Freedom Caucus, which says she was denied due process.

The same argument was made Thursday by Lt. gov. Larry Rhoden, a Republican, when the Senate moved to suspend Frye-Mueller. Rhoden’s constitutional duties include presiding over the Senate, but Sens. Lee Schoenbeck of Watertown and Casey Crabtree of Madison pressed ahead and said the Rapid City legislature had crossed a line.

“I have no law in front of me and I don’t need one,” said Schönbeck. “The rules, as LRC explained to me, is that we have the ability to protect the decency of the body.”

The Senate voted 27-6-2 to establish the special committee and then 27-7 to suspend Frye-Mueller.

Frye-Mueller has vowed not to resign. She is being represented in her lawsuit by former South Dakota House Speaker Steve Haugaard, a conservative from Sioux Falls who challenged Noem in a gubernatorial primary in June.

The lawsuit names Schoenbeck as a defendant, a longtime Republican insider in state politics who, as President pro tempore, controls the Senate. Schoenbeck removed Frye-Mueller from the local government and health and human services committees on Wednesday.

Frye-Mueller said it was more about politics than due process. She and Schoenbeck are both Republicans, but he opposed several conservative candidates during the 2022 election cycle, including Frye-Mueller and her Senate seatmate and ally Senator Tom Pischke of Dell Rapids.

I promoted my well-known attitude of medical freedom and the ability of individuals to choose medical treatment for themselves.

State Senator Julie Frye-Mueller

Frye-Mueller said she considered the LRC employee a friend and thought they were just having a chat.

“It struck me that the topic may be a conversation I had with staff in which I promoted my well-known attitude of medical freedom and the ability of individuals to choose medical treatment themselves,” she said last week.

South Dakota lawmakers have already investigated one of their members for unusual behavior.

In 2017, State Assemblyman Mathew Wollman, a Republican from Madison, resigned after admitting to having sex with two interns during his first term.

In 2007, State Senator Dan Sutton, a Democrat from Flandreau, was reprimanded by the Senate after a male intern and longtime family friend said the senator petted him while the two shared a bed in a Pierre hotel room in 2006.

Sutton left the legislature after serving a tenure. He was later elected mayor of Flandreau, and in 2020 another man made allegations of inappropriate sexual contact two decades earlier. No charges have been filed and Sutton remains in office.

Frye-Mueller is still a senator, but without committee seats and voting rights, she is virtually powerless. She’s trying to change that by assuming the state’s long-established Republican leadership.

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