PIERRE, S.D. – While the U.S. House investigates ex-Rep. Mark Foley's sexually explicit instant messages to former Capitol Hill staffers, South Dakota is dealing with its own page scandal.
The Senate is scheduled to convene in a special session Nov. 27 to look into allegations that Sen. Dan Sutton, a Democrat from the eastern town of Flandreau, "sexually groped" an 18-year-old page in this year's legislative session.
After hearing evidence, the Senate could take actions ranging from imposing no punishment up to expelling Sutton, a 36-year-old insurance agent.
Sutton, who is seeking re-election, has not responded publicly to the allegations, but his lawyer, Mike Butler, has said Sutton has done nothing wrong and will not resign. He pointed out that state investigators have not filed criminal charges.
However, Senate leaders said they have a responsibility to determine whether legislative rules were broken and to make sure pages, who are high school students who run errands for lawmakers, are safe.
"The Senate's interest is finding out what, if anything, happened to one of the students who were entrusted to us and how to ensure it's not going to happen in the future with the next group of kids coming in January," said Republican Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, president pro tem of the Senate. "It's completely separate from any criminal investigation."
Sen. Garry Moore, leader of the minority Democrats, agreed that lawmakers have a responsibility to deal with allegations of misconduct.
"In light of the fact you have high school seniors that are a part of this program, we need to police our own even if there aren't any charges brought. We need to talk to people about it," Moore said.
The basis for the Senate's inquiry is a constitutional provision giving the Senate and House authority to judge the qualifications of their members, and parliamentary rules that generally give legislatures authority over their members' conduct.
In the nation's better-known page scandal, Foley, a Republican from Florida, resigned from the U.S. House on Sept. 29 after being confronted with sexually explicit messages to former male pages. The House ethics committee is investigating when House leaders first learned of the misconduct and how they responded.
In North Dakota, the page reported the incident to the attorney general's office within two days of the alleged misconduct, Schoenbeck said.
Schoenbeck said he sent a letter to Sutton on Oct. 12, the day after the former page's father filed a formal complaint alleging that Sutton invited the page to stay overnight in his motel room and then groped the young man. The letter told Sutton that if he did not resign within a week, the Senate would start formal proceedings to investigate and possibly punish the senator.
Sutton did not resign, so the top Senate leaders from both political parties asked Gov. Mike Rounds to call the chamber into a special session.
Attorney General Larry Long has said only that a criminal investigation is continuing. On Tuesday, the Legislature's Executive Board subpoenaed Long's office for all information related to the investigation.
If Sutton wins re-election next week, the Senate in January would have to decide whether to seat him. "I think it's something the next Senate would have to deal with themselves," Moore said.
The South Dakota Legislature has no formal rules on how lawmakers can interact with pages, but the Senate and House are expected to write such rules before the start of next year's session.
Until now, lawmakers had never considered the need for a written rule governing how members of the Legislature conduct themselves around pages, Schoenbeck said.
"Anything in the area of sexual harassment would so obviously be outside the bounds of appropriate conduct that while it isn't a rule, you shouldn't have to have a rule," Schoenbeck said.
But lawmakers now realize clear, tough rules need to be written, Schoenbeck said.
Some lawmakers have said parts of the special legislative session should be held behind closed doors to protect the page when he testifies, but Schoenbeck said he believes the entire session should be open.
If testimony is heard in private, all 35 senators and the other people involved would later give their own interpretation of what happened, Schoenbeck said. It would be better for the public to hear the testimony firsthand, he said.
"The public either gets to see the facts in an open session or they hear a bunch of different people's versions of the facts after a closed session," he said.