State legislature committee votes against rule to ban sexual contact with interns

South Dakota State Sen. Stace Nelson, left, recently proposed a rule banning any sexual contact with interns.
South Dakota State Sen. Stace Nelson, left, recently proposed a rule banning any sexual contact with interns. AP

South Dakota’s joint committee on legislative procedure rejected a proposed rule Wednesday that would have explicitly forbidden state legislators from any sexual contact with interns or pages.

Opponents said the rule was unneccessary and redundant because of a clause prohibiting sexual harassment in the state legislature’s code of ethics, while proponents argued that the existing rule leaves a gray area that has been exploited in the past.

The current prohibition on sexual harassment is listed as part of the legislature’s joint rules on decorum, according to documents posted by Talking Points Memo.

“All members are responsible for ensuring that the workplace is free from sexual harassment,” the rule reads. “All members shall avoid any action or conduct which could be viewed as sexual harassment. A member shall report any sexual harassment complaint to the presiding officer of the house to which the member belongs. If the situation is not resolved, the member shall forward the complaint to the Executive Board of the Legislative Research Council.

The new rule was proposed by Republican Sen. Stace Nelson, who cited a 2007 incident in which then-State Sen. Dan Sutton was accused of fondling a page while sharing a bed with him as a reason for clearer, stricter rules.

“The facts are, this body went through a very public and ugly trial about a decade ago,” Nelson argued, according to the Argus Leader. “There's been events in history that indicate these rules should have been put in stone and they haven't. This is a rule we brought forth to address this so that there is no gray area.”

However, other members of the committee said the original rule covered unwanted sexual contact and was sufficent regulation.

“I'm hesitant to pass something when we get into itemizing every potential wrongdoing that a legislator could commit, lest this become a criminal code rather than a code of ethics," Republican Rep. David Lust said.

Nelson said the principal difference between his proposed rule and the one already on the books was that his was an outright ban on any sexual conduct, whereas the existing rule prohibited harassment, which would only included unwanted sexual contact.

“A victim is not always aware that they’re a victim,” Nelson said, according to the Dakota Free Press.

However, Lust responded by saying that another existing legislative rule that requires legislators to “avoid improper behavior” covered any sexual contact with pages or interns.

The committee voted 9-5 to table the rule, effectively killing any chance it had of becoming enacted. The committee’s two Democrats and seven Republicans voted against it, while five Republicans were in favor.

The ethics of the South Dakota legislature have been under fire in recent months, as voters passed a slew of ethics reforms after the state legislature earned an “F” grade from the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, conducted by the Center for Public Investigation.

Those ethics reforms have been put on hold by a judge, but the topic has loomed over the beginning of the 2017 legislative session, according to WNAX.