PIERRE, South Dakota—The state legislature has been consumed by a bizarre scandal after a lawmaker allegedly stepped way over the line and gave a staffer unsolicited advice on COVID vaccines and breast-feeding, including a suggestion that she suckle her husband.
State Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, a Republican from Rapid City, was suspended from her committee assignments last week and stripped of the ability to vote after the incident was first reported to Senate leadership.
Frye-Mueller, who belongs to a far-right caucus, is now suing to get her voting rights restored—even as the unnamed staffer released jaw-dropping 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 into her office on Jan. 24. She said that after discussing the draft of a bill, the senator asked about her baby son and whether she had been vaccinated.
“I told her ‘yes.’ Without allowing me to elaborate further, she proceeded to point her finger at me and aggressively say that this will cause him issues,” the staffer said. She said added that Frye-Mueller told her people are being used as “guinea pigs for Big Pharma,” warned that was she was “taking away God’s gift of immunity from your son,” and falsely claimed the child could get Down syndrome or autism or “die from those vaccines.”
The staffer went on to say that the lawmaker asked if she was breast-feeding, and when she said was feeding with formula, she got more unwanted advice.
“I was told by Senator Frye-Mueller that my husband could ‘suck on my breasts’ to get milk to come in. She indicated ‘a good time for that is at night.’ She proceeded to provide hand gestures to her chest area and motion to her husband to see if he agreed. He smiled and nodded,” she wrote.
The staffer said the senator then became even more emotional and aggressive, and with tears in her eyes, told her to stop vaccinating the infant. She said she knew of twins who were harmed by a vaccine and asked if the woman wanted that to happen to her child. The staffer told her she would think it over.
“I did so in the hope that it would end the conversation and not upset her further,” she wrote.
Although the inquiry into Frye-Mueller’s behavior became public last week, the full details of the allegations did not come to light until Monday. The staffer is scheduled to testify Tuesday behind closed doors before the Senate Select Committee on Discipline and Expulsion.
Republicans are in total control of South Dakota’s state government, holding a 31-4 edge in the Senate and a 63-7 supermajority in the House. Republicans have served as governor since 1979. Senate leaders named seven Republicans and two Democrats to serve on the committee.
While they rarely need to battle with statehouse Democrats, the South Dakota GOP has a lengthy history of family feuds. Last year, it impeached and removed Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, a Republican, after a lengthy investigation into a 2020 fatal crash that killed a pedestrian.
During the 2022 session, Gov. Kristi Noem battled with fellow Republicans over Ravnsborg and other issues, with then-Speaker Spencer Gosch saying the governor was using hardball tactics to get her way in Pierre.
Frye-Mueller, serving her second term, is a member of the South Dakota Freedom Caucus, which says she was denied due process.
That same argument was made by Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden, a Republican, on Thursday as 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 on, saying the Rapid City lawmaker had crossed a line.
“I don’t have a statute in front of me, and I don’t need one,” Schoenbeck said. “The rules, as LRC has explained to me, is that we have the ability to protect the decorum of the body.”
The Senate voted 27-6-2 to create the special committee, and then voted 27-7 to suspend Frye-Mueller.
Frye-Mueller has vowed not to resign. In her lawsuit, she is represented by former South Dakota Speaker of the House Steve Haugaard, a Sioux Falls conservative who challenged Noem in a gubernatorial primary in June.
The lawsuit lists Schoenbeck, a longtime Republican insider in state politics who controls the Senate as president pro tempore, as the defendant. Schoenbeck removed Frye-Mueller from the Local Government and Health and Human Services Committees on Wednesday.
Frye-Mueller said this is more about politics than proper procedure. She and Schoenbeck are both Republicans, but he opposed several conservative candidates, including Frye-Mueller and her Senate seatmate and ally Sen. Tom Pischke of Dell Rapids, during the 2022 election cycle.
Frye-Mueller said she considers the LRC staffer a friend and thought they were just engaged in a conversation.
“It has come to my attention that the issue may involve a conversation I had with staff, where I promoted my well-known stance of medical freedom and the ability of individuals to choose medical treatment for themselves,” she said last week.
South Dakota legislators have investigated one of their members for unusual conduct before.
In 2017, state Rep. Mathew Wollman, a Republican from Madison, resigned after admitting to having sex with two female interns during his first term in office.
In 2007, state Sen. Dan Sutton, a Democrat from Flandreau, was censured by the Senate after a male intern and longtime family friend said the senator fondled him while the two shared a bed in a Pierre hotel room in 2006.
Sutton left the legislature after being term-limited. He later was elected mayor of Flandreau, and in 2020, another man made allegations of inappropriate sexual contact two decades earlier. No charges were filed and Sutton remains in office.
Frye-Mueller is still a state senator, but without committee assignments and the right to vote, she is essentially powerless. She is trying to change that by taking on the state’s long-entrenched Republican leadership.