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South Dakota Senate takes action against Sen. Sutton

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Sen. Dan Sutton
Sen. Dan Sutton, (D-Flandreau) listened to testinomy last week during a hearing to investigate allegations that he engaged in sexual misbehavior with a teenage legislative page.
Photo courtesy Sioux Falls Argus Leader

This was the opportunity for members of the South Dakota Senate to comment publicly on the allegations against Sen. Dan Sutton.  But no one rose on the floor to speak.

Sen. Scott Heidepriem, a Democrat, served as the co-chairman of the committee that investigated the allegations.  Heideprem offered the committee's report for consideration by the full Senate.  He told the Senate that committee members felt censure was the only appropriate middle ground.

Austin Wiese
Austin Wiese, a 19-year-old from Flandreau, listened during a Senate hearing last week. Wiese alleges that Sen. Dan Sutton, (D-Flandreau) engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with him while the teen was a legislative page.
Photo courtesy Sioux Falls Argus Leader

"At the end of the day what the committee had to do was make a judgement," Heideprem said.  "We had no firm standard to guide us.  We did not have beyond a reasonable doubt or clear and convincing.  We had to instead trust our own instinct as to what is appropriate under these circumstances."

A South Dakota teenager, 19-year-old Austin Wiese, testified that he and Sen. Dan Sutton shared a bed in a Fort Pierre hotel room.  The Senator offered Wiese a place to stay while the teenager served as a legislative page for one week last year.  Sutton and the Wiese family were close friends.  Austin Wiese says while he was sleeping Sen. Sutton touched him inappropriately.  The hearings became a he-said, he-said and it was up to lawmakers to decide who to believe.  Investigations by the Attorney General had resulted in no criminal charges. 

Even though there was no debate on the Senate floor, there was clear disagreement.  The Republican chairman of the Senate committee urged lawmakers to expel Sen. Sutton.  Republican Sen. Dave Knudson says he believed Austin Wiese, the legislative page, and that as a result Sen. Sutton should be expelled.  Knutson's motion failed.  

Political censure is a tough sentence for any politician, according to Bill Richardson,  chairman of the University of South Dakota political science department.  He calls this a public scolding that will follow Sutton.

Sen. Dan Sutton and wife Mary Beth
Sen. Dan Sutton (D-Flandreau) and his wife Mary Beth during a legislative hearing.
Photo courtesy of Sioux Falls Argus Leader

"This will be a mark on his life that will be remarked upon when it comes time to write any history of his life that is candid and open, and any history of the Senate that is candid and open, Richardson said.

While it was appropriate for the senate to investigate one of it's own members, Richardson says time is running out for lawmakers to focus on other issues.  The South Dakota Legislature meets for only 40 days and the half-way mark is next week.  Richardson says many senators will now distance themselves from Sen. Dan Sutton.

"I don't envision Sen. Sutton being an enormously effective legislator in the time remaining in this session after the vote of the body as a whole," Richardson said.

Sen. Sutton is not listed as a prime sponsor for any legislation this year. He has signed on as a co-sponsor to about 20 bills.  Sutton won re-election to his senate seat in November.  He will face term limits at the end of this term in the South Dakota Senate.