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South Dakota Senate censures, reinstates suspended lawmaker

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The South Dakota Senate on Wednesday censured and reinstated a Republican senator who was suspended last week amid allegations she harassed a legislative aide by telling the aide that she had harmed her child by getting him vaccinated.

The Republican-controlled Senate overwhelmingly approved a report from an investigative committee that concluded Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller harassed a staff member of the Legislative Research Council, which assists lawmakers with drafting bills and research.

The aide, who has not been publicly named, filed a complaint last week alleging that Frye-Mueller became aggressive when she asked about vaccines and told the aide her child could die from them or have health issues.

According to the complaint, the aide also said Frye-Mueller asked her about breastfeeding. When the aide said she wished she could breastfeed, Frye-Mueller allegedly suggested that the aide's husband could “suck on my breasts” to get milk to come in, the complaint said. The aide said in her complaint — which was released by the Senate's investigative committee this week — that Frye-Mueller's husband was in the room at the time and that he “smiled and nodded.”

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Frye-Mueller said she was voicing her opinion that people should be able to choose to get vaccines, and that the staffer brought up breastfeeding. Frye-Mueller's husband has said he tried to leave the room when the latter issue came up.

“The language contained in the staff person’s statement was shocking and filthy and is not what I said or conveyed,” the senator said in a statement Wednesday. “That aspect of the conversation was entirely fabricated. The permanent damage done to my reputation and that of my family is a stain that will not go away.”

The senator has sued the Senate's leadership in federal court, arguing that her suspension, which was made without first holding a hearing, violated her right to due process and free speech and her ability to represent her constituents.

“The Senate committee, in adopting its report, has clearly made a statement that we believe” the aide, Republican Sen. David Wheeler said. “We believe misconduct happened and some sort of discipline is appropriate.”

Only one senator voted against adopting the report and its discipline: Republican Tom Pischke said he disagreed with nearly everything the Senate had done to discipline Frye-Mueller, that it had deprived her of due process and tried to cast doubt on the credibility of the aide.

Frye-Mueller, who is allied with a right-wing group of Republicans, will be reinstated to the Senate but barred from interacting with most of the Legislative Research Council staff. She was allowed back on to the Senate floor Wednesday after the vote.

“I completely disagree with the censure,” Frye-Mueller told reporters. “The only reason I’m going back in is to be a voice for the voters of District 30.”

Medical authorities say childhood vaccines are safe and help prevent potentially deadly diseases. They have have long been celebrated as public health success stories, but vaccination rates among kindergarteners have dropped nationwide in recent years.