Senate State Affairs kept the “Repeal the Will of the Voters!” train rolling today, voting 7–2 (Republicans, including my District 3 Senator Al Novstrup, all aye, Democrats Billie Sutton and Troy Heinert nay) to send House Bill 1069, repeal of the Anti-Corruption Act, to the full Senate. The Senate convenes at 1 p.m. tomorrow (Thursday); HB 1069 is scheduled for a vote tomorrow.
We knew back in November, when the Koch Brothers failed to defeat IM 22 at the polls and Republican leaders went to court, that the South Dakota Republican Party would use every tool at its disposal to erase the Anti-Corruption Act and protect themselves (again) from the scrutiny of a state ethics commission.
We did not know in November that the paucity of ethics in Pierre would be laid bare by Mathew Wollmann’s sex scandal. In a live interview with conservative KELO Radio host Greg Belfrage this morning, Republican Senator Stace Nelson laid out what he knows about Republican leaders’ efforts to cover up former Representative Mathew Wollmann’s persistent sexual misconduct with several Legislative interns during both years of his first term in office.
Note that Senator Nelson’s comments are all hearsay. But this is a sitting Senator publicly saying what he has heard from interns and legislators.
Senator Nelson said that he first learned about Wollmann’s misconduct from conservative legislators last summer, after his primary victory. Nelson said he heard from interns after the Joint Rules Committee rejected the sexual-contact prohibition he proposed two weeks ago.
Nelson said legislators and interns told him that in 2015, several legislators became aware of Wollmann’s having sexual contact with several interns. Upset with “being played,” some interns complained to legislators that Wollmann was making them uncomfortable. Nelson said many legislators observed Wollmann spending an inordinate amount of time around interns and pages.
Nelson told Belfrage that in 2015, Senator Brock Greenfield raised concerns about Wollmann to then-Speaker Dean Wink and told him not to blow the issue off. Wink’s own words suggest he did blow it off after a simple denial from Wollmann. Nelson says Greenfield was able to get action from Dusty Johnson, who viewed Wollmann’s behavior as reason to remove Wollmann from any official contact with the Teenage Republican group that Johnson ran.
Nelson said Wollmann’s behavior continued in 2016 and was common knowledge among many legislators. Just how common? “I have not met one former House member from 2015 to 2016,” said Nelson, “who said that they were unaware of this….”
Senator Nelson claimed in this morning’s interview that Wollmann’s “limited confession” on KSFY on January 18 “is not the whole truth.” Nelson said Wollmann had sexual contact with more than one intern in 2015 and one other in 2016. Nelson said two interns reported to him that Wollmann knowingly provided alcohol to an underage person on at least one occasion and may have had sexual contact with an intern who was not legally capable of consenting. Nelson said he forwarded that information to the Attorney General.
Belfrage interjected the central observation of this entire scandal:
The bigger issue for me through all of this as I’m hearing you is that lawmakers legislators are aware of these kinds of things and they’re doing nothing. I’ve got to tell you, that just frosts me beyond belief [Greg Belfrage, while interviewing Senator Stace Nelson, KELO Radio, 2017.01.25]
Nelson concurred, noting a “vacuum of leadership” among members of the 2015–2016 Legislature and, to some extent, this year’s Legislature. “A lot of these people condoned it and facilitated it by looking the other way or joking about it, which made it even worse…. These young kids don’t come up here to be targets of someone’s romantic escapades. They come up here to serve their state.”
Nelson said some interns are still struggling to deal with what Wollmann did. Interns Nelson has heard from remain “disgusted and distraught.”
Belfrage added, “And so am I.” Later Belfrage said, “The more I listen to you this morning, it really seems like lawmakers have almost fostered a very permissive… sexual atmosphere in Pierre.”
Nelson said folks in his conservative district agree the Legislature must change. “The problem that is even worse,” said Nelson, “is that the people we send up here that are supposed to have the moral courage to address these problems within our laws didn’t have the moral courage to even police one of their own when it was happening.”
This conversation between Nelson and Belfrage shows the real ethics problem in Pierre. Republican legislators mobilized immediately in court and in this Session to repeal the people’s effort to check Legislative corruption. Yet Republican legislators waited two years to act against a legislator’s obvious, unethical conduct toward the most vulnerable members of their organization.