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Former Legislator, Lobbyist Say Sexual Misconduct Common in Legislature

Remember last March when Bob Mercer said sexual misconduct is not unusual in Pierre?

Former legislator Angie Buhl O’Donnell and current lobbyist Samantha Spawn both made news yesterday by opening up about sexual harassment and unwanted sexual contact in our Legislature.

In a public Facebook post, Buhl O’Donnell recounts offensive sexual comments made to her in 2016 by then-House Majority Leader Brian Gosch. She says Gosch made lewd references to her body, then, later that same evening, asked for a hug.

Buhl O’Donnell says she heard stories of Gosch treating other women inappropriately in Pierre:

Later that day, I was discussing the incident with other female colleagues, who had their own Brian Gosch harassment stories to share. We had all had individually felt like we should just handle it on our own, but hearing similar stories from other women made it clear this was a pattern, and not likely to stop if we remained silent. We were also keenly aware that we worked in a building with lots of young women serving as interns; if we as experienced legislators were struggling with this, how would an intern feel?

The legislative structure generally relies on self-policing, so we made the decision to speak with the presiding officers of both the House and the Senate. They were both understanding and not at all dismissive of us, and were appropriately disgusted (though I can’t say either of them looked surprised). They told us it would be dealt with, and that if we wanted to file a formal complaint we just had to say the word. We also had indications that Representative Gosch was not planning to run for re-election, so I told myself that handling it internally was fine. I didn’t want to make a fuss [Angie Buhl O’Donnell, Facebook post, 2017.10.13].

Gosch tells the press that Buhl O’Donnell started it:

Brian Gosch
Brian Gosch

Gosch told Argus Leader Media that Buhl O’Donnell initiated the conversation about being hit in the breasts and he joked that she was hit in the breasts more than once.

“I am sorry if she was offended by that,” he said in a statement. “It was not intended to harass her or make her feel uncomfortable” [Dana Ferguson, “Former State Lawmaker, Lobbyist Tell of Sexual Harassment, Rape in Pierre,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2017.10.13].

Just three hours after Buhl O’Donnell posted her story, NARAL/Pro-Choice lobbyist Samantha Spawn posted to Facebook and confirmed to Ferguson that she was raped last March by (Ferguson’s words) “another person who works in the Capitol.” Spawn writes on Facebook that, the day after the rape, her attacker cornered her outside a Capitol committee room and asked her if she was going to report the crime. She didn’t, out of fear that such a report would hurt her personal reputation and her ability to do her job in Pierre.

Like Buhl O’Donnell, Spawn says bad male behavior is common in the Legislature:

Other unwanted contact from male legislators and lobbyists was also common in the Capitol, she said. Spawn often received unwanted hugs, kisses on her cheeks and had men touch her waist [Ferguson, 2017.10.13].

Why speak up now? Are movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s transgressions finally going to provoke a widespread revolt against piggish male behavior that Donald Trump’s comments about his grope entitlement last year and Mathew Wollmann’s resignation from the Legislature after a full term of boinking interns couldn’t? I yield the floor to Ms. Buhl O’Donnell for the final word:

I’m bringing this to light not in search of personal gain or out of political motives: neither of us are in the legislature at the moment, and I’m 2 months away from finishing my nursing degree and moving with my family to Minnesota. I’m just tired of feeling like it’s a thing I should keep quiet out of deference to my harasser, because that allows the behavior to continue. I’m sharing my story in the hopes that people will remember that this isn’t something that happens only in “other places,” this happens right here in South Dakota. That it doesn’t matter how much “planning” someone does or how much of a feminist you are – you can’t predict how you will react in the moment, and those reactions are simply a survival mechanism and do not define us. I’m telling my story because it is the only way to call out the culture in Pierre and elsewhere that shrugs off this behavior. I’m saying this how in the hope that other women will feel empowered to speak up, until harassment is no longer a thing that “just happens” [Angie Buhl O’Donnell, Facebook post, 2017.10.13].


  1. Spencer 2017-10-14 14:54

    I hope Spawn is filing charges and does not let up on this issue until justice is served. She needs to go public on who this is now before someone else is victimized.

  2. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-14 15:11

    I second Spencer’s call for justice and keeping other women safe from this at-large predator.

  3. Jenny 2017-10-14 15:17

    I am appalled but not surprised. Do South Dakota women even have a woman in power that that will fight for them in South Dakota? Everything is run by the Good Ol Boys Club.

  4. Jenny 2017-10-14 15:23

    It’s sad that in 2017 in the US, women have to put up with this kind of treatment.
    The comment by Gosch is what you would expect from a high school kid, not someone that represents South Dakotans in the legislature.
    Well guess what Mr Gosch, that is sexual harassment and you should no better.
    I wonder how many more sexual assaults the SD State Capital is hiding. Stace Nelson, please start an investigation. He’s the only legislator with any credibility that I would trust to get any justice.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-14 15:25

    Jenny, dare I ask if a Governor Noem would change that patriarchal climate?

  6. Donald Pay 2017-10-14 15:25

    I spent many years (18) in Pierre as a resident and as a lobbyist. Most of that time I never went to the social events that happen almost every night during session. A couple years I socialized quite a bit. Thus, I have about 16 years where I only saw the legislators doing their day jobs and 2 years where I saw both the normal legislative work during the day and a good bit of the carousing during the evening.

    Let me just state that we are talking here about the events thrown by lobbying groups that were so sacrosanct to legislators that they felt the need to repeal IM-22 to protect. It’s not that all the carousing occurred during these social events, but they did provide a hookup event for subsequent shenanigans.

    I never saw any harassment, sexual or otherwise, at the committee meetings or floor sessions or out in the lobbies or hallways. I suppose it might happen, but generally everyone has their game-face on then.

    I’m not one who thinks these social events are all that bad. Getting to know others outside of the daily grind of the Legislature is certainly not a bad thing. But it does increase the chances for the sexual predators among us to mistake friendliness for a come on. And, sometimes, it’s the other way around, too. I saw some of that, as well.

    I can believe these women’s stories, because I’ve seen and heard stuff that was pretty similar from a couple decades ago.

    Instead of passing an awful bunch of new laws to make the initiative harder for South Dakota citizens to use, they should spend time enacting more of IM-22, which, I think, was on the right track to curbing some of the out-of-control behavior and corruption that’s too often seen in Pierre.

  7. Steve Hickey 2017-10-14 15:39

    so Gosch gets outed for a comment made on a basketball court but it’s okay to just mention we have a rapist working at the Capitol and just leave it at that??

  8. Jenny 2017-10-14 15:44

    Nobody insinuated anything like that, Steve.

  9. Rorschach 2017-10-14 15:50

    Yes, Mr. Hickey. I’m with you on this comment. Now we’re left to wonder who the alleged rapist is. Makes it hard to prosecute anyone when no police report is made and the person goes unnamed. And, it makes one wonder if the alleged rapist is being protected because he’s a Democrat. It’s important to say “alleged” here because that’s all we have. A vague and belated allegation.

  10. Rorschach 2017-10-14 15:58

    I will also say that now every man who worked in the capital in March is a rape suspect. Everybody will be wondering, “Was it this guy? or this guy?”

  11. Jenny 2017-10-14 16:19

    The alleged rapist could just as likely be a Republican with powerful ties.

  12. jerry 2017-10-14 16:41

    A rapist is a rapist, no matter what party. Have we fallen that far over the edge?

  13. Roger Cornelius 2017-10-14 16:44

    Rorschach, are you assuming that since these two women are Democrats that the sexual predator and rapists had to be Democrat?

  14. mike from iowa 2017-10-14 18:27

    Common- amongst all them gawd fearing kristian, family values type wingnuts? Say it ain’t so. I know it is all Dems fault because they can’t get elected in embarrassingly red South Dakota.

  15. Rorschach 2017-10-14 19:10

    I’m not assuming anything. I’m saying that a vague allegation has been made that has unfairly brought an entire group of people under a cloud of guilt and invited speculation about who from among that group is the perpetrator. It’s like Cinderella. Whom does the slipper fit? But unlike Cinderella, Ms. Spawn knows and isn’t saying. So here we are speculating.

  16. Roger Cornelius 2017-10-14 19:43

    “And it makes one wonder if the alleged rapist is being protected by Democrats” Kind of sounds like speculation to me.

  17. Donald Pay 2017-10-14 21:28

    What I’m hearing from some here is white male privilege. No wonder women don’t bother to report sexual assault.

  18. Rorschach 2017-10-14 22:21

    Please explain your vague “white male privilege” claim, Mr. Pay. Seems to me that the white males are eager to hold someone accountable who, demographically speaking, is probably one of their own.

  19. Curtis Price 2017-10-14 23:14

    I’m sure Spawn a) wanted to continue working and b) was pretty sure she would be victim-shamed if she came forward with these charges because of the circumstances. I totally get it. She liked her job, which would have been over immediately had she reported it at the time, because that’s the way it is. Still. Almost Everywhere.

    Guys are the ones with the power in that environment and it won’t change until they decide this behavior is absolutely unacceptable. This is not only true in Pierre but everywhere.

    I’m really sad about this, the Federal workplace where I’ve been for 30 years has changed for better (a lot) over that time for women. but it seems most of America is still way behind the curve. It’s just so awful what we lose when this kind of stuff limits what half of our population can contribute.

  20. grudznick 2017-10-15 00:36

    Do we know the predator-at-large is a male? I have heard, and this is about what we all have heard, that young Ms. Buhl was not necessarily exclusively dating men before she got married. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’m just sayin…if we’re gonna throw Mr. Gosch’s ramblings out there we should throw all of Ms. Buhl’s. There are some other stories that are not in line with this blogging that I might imagine will crop up eventually, and then grudznick can weigh in with an opinion.

    All this nonsense makes you just want to have the sergeants at arms to have little bats to bonk people on the heads with for being stupid. We need more LRC staff to keep these moron legislatures in control, and if Mr. Nelson does not think he and his fellows need babysitters they can go whump a bumpus for all I care.

    More babysitting is needed.

  21. mike from iowa 2017-10-15 08:15

    I’m guessing the lege is a male locker room and females aren’t necessarily afforded the same comradere as male counterparts. Like the mangled apricot moron in the WH believes, women are playthings for the guys and shouldn’t be bothered by male locker room antics.

  22. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-15 08:21

    Wow, Grudz. Rude, to put it lightly. We’re not talking about dating or other consensual activities. We’re talking about harassment and rape, abuses of other people’s dignity and autonomy.

    And give the salacaious red harrings a rest: Spawn makes clear her attacker was male.

    I don’t think Ror’s comment was meant to make any partisan assumptions or accusations. This story is not about party platforms. It might faintly be about the corruption engendered by one-party rule, but the white male privilege narrative is far more important here. We turn a bunch of mostly men loose in Pierre for winter camp, give them lots of free food and booze, put them up in hotels and apartments far from family and friends, under scrutiny of only a small cadre of reporters who apparently have spent years keeping silent (for the same reasons as the victims) about moral turpitude that is protected by a white male power structure.

    Forget babysitters, Grudz. We need reporters who will out the criminals. We need victims who can speak up without the fear of losing their jobs and any employability in South Dakota. We need perhaps to move the Legislative Session to Sioux Falls, or perhaps just conduct all of our legislating by teleconference, the way they do some of their interim meetings.

    And we may need to clean house: new legislators, new governor, new state officials, new heads of departments. Top to bottom, new people not connected to the existing power structure.

  23. Rick Hauffe 2017-10-15 10:42

    I’ve known Samantha and Angie for several years and their integrity is beyond question. They are each brave for outing their painful secrets and should be commended. Perhaps in our free society, it would be best for attacks on women to be exposed not only for prosecution, if evidence can be substantial enough to win a case, but also to teach a lesson that is a long way from being learned that no means no, rape is a crime and the damage done to others by rapists, gropers and child abusers is lasting and severe.

    This is not a tragedy confined to Pierre. It happens in every community. Our world needs more people with the courage demonstrated by Samantha and Angie. If the law can’t or won’t reverse the high incidence of rape and sexual abuse, then maybe the exposure of the perpetrators is the most effective remedy available.

  24. Francis Schaffer 2017-10-15 10:42

    It is not only about ‘abuses of other people’s dignity and autonomy’. It is about criminal activity. This is my point using a turn of phrase.

    Instead of:

    Women are raped, why not men rape women?
    Women are sexual harassed, why not men sexually harass women?

    I believe now is the time to change the narrative on who is responsible for the actions, it certainly is not the woman’s fault. It is also incumbent upon the all people especially men to quit allowing this behavior in our presence.

  25. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-15 16:44

    Interesting point showing the significance of active voice versus passive voice in our language, Francis.

  26. Spencer 2017-10-15 19:57

    Spawn claims to be coming forward in the best interests of those who work in the capitol and those affected by this issue at large; yet, she is not effectively modeling how this issue should be handled by keeping it secret for six months and then only willing to point the finger at someone who works at the capitol. If she was raped and the rapist actually cornered her and threatened her after a committee hearing, this person needs to be publicly named and prosecuted, immediately. The fact that she is harboring this alleged rapist is the exact opposite of what society needs women to do in this case. I am not sure who she is trying to help in this situation. She certainly is not helping those who are dealing with rape by letting an alleged rapist run free in our capitol. I had assumed she would be more forthcoming by now since this has gone public.

  27. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-16 05:16

    Spencer, are you sure you want to rush to that blame-the-accuser judgment? Are you sure there is no quiet law-enforcement action being initiated?

  28. Francis Schaffer 2017-10-16 12:18

    Have you been a victim of sexual abuse, rape, incest? If so, you then know how difficult it can be to face the situation, talk about it, even years later. The fear can be crippling. If you haven’t then please stop your judgement of her actions which don’t met your narrative of how you would do things. The situation is more complex than anyone on this blog knows.

  29. Ryan 2017-10-18 13:37

    There is no blame to place on anybody other than the perpetrator of a sexual assault. Hopefully most or all of us can agree that sexual assaults and rapes should never happen. If eliminating these assaults is the goal, I think it makes sense for everyone to take action that leads to achieving that goal.

    The “popular” opinion, and I agree with it completely, is that sexual predators should stop being sexual predators and not victimize anybody, ever. I think the issue of reporting and holding people accountable is what some of the “unpopular” commenters are focusing on. It’s one thing to agree that rapists shouldn’t rape, but it’s another thing to face the reality that some people are just horrible people and will never conform their actions to the moral majority – and I think the people who are being accused of “victim-blaming” are attempting to navigate that reality by suggesting that an increase in the reporting of crimes may help potential future victims not become actual victims. I admit it sounds completely unsympathetic to suggest a rape victim is “allowing” her rapist to rape others by not reporting the crime to authorities, but I can’t say that argument has no merit. If the conviction rates for sexual assaults are lower than for other crimes, that issue should be addressed, absolutely. However, as long as conviction rates are above 0% for reported sexual assaults, I think we would be missing an opportunity to reduce these types of assaults by subscribing to the notion that increased reporting isn’t an important variable in this fight against vile criminals just because that idea feels unsympathetic.

    Not all the comments on these sexual-assault related posts are exactly works of literary art, but I understand the message behind most of the comments to be “We don’t want these people hurting anybody else, either, so tell us who it was so we can do something about it.” If this problem had an easy solution, I would say let’s do that. It doesn’t have an easy solution, though, so instead of fighting people who want the same result but say it differently, we should all teach our children how to treat others, we should speak up when we see anybody being victimized, including ourselves, and we should collective hold people accountable for their actions.

    Education, Prevention, and Enforcement. Three necessary aspects of behavior management. Two out of three isn’t enough.

  30. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-20 06:14

    But Ryan, I fear too many people pose that challenge to victims in ways that make it sound like they are morally equating the victims and the victimizers.

    Asking a rapist not to rape or a harasser not to harass poses no moral or practical risk to the rapist or harasser. We’re making a negative request, with which a moral person or even a non-moral person can easily comply without lifting a finger.

    Asking a victim of rape or harassment to report the crime poses moral and practical risk to the victim. We’re making a positive request for action that requires effort, money, and bravery above and beyond a normal day’s activity.

    Those are very different requests. Failure to comply with the latter is not a crime. Failure to comply with the former is.

  31. Ryan 2017-10-20 08:50

    I have never been victimized in the way that we are talking about here, so I can’t even pretend to imagine how difficult it is to come forward, but I don’t think the difficulty in doing so is reason enough to not encourage it. Civilized people everywhere agree that nobody should sexually assault anybody – so we are on board with the negative request you mention. However, there are many uncivilized creatures walking among us, and they apparently don’t mind one bit denying that request.

    Run some quick numbers (with admittedly several assumptions):

    There are about 150 Million girls and women in the US.
    Statistics say about 1 in 4 females will be victimized in their lifetime (or more)
    That suggests about 38 Million American women are assault victims.
    About 325,000 sexual assaults happen each year in the US.
    About 32% of these assaults are reported to police.
    That’s about 104,000 reported sexual assaults.
    Statistics show about 7 in 1000 reported sexual assaults lead to a felony conviction.
    That’s about 728 felony convictions.
    If the reporting of sexual assaults increased from 32% to 64% over night, you could assume an increase of about 728 more felony convictions annually for sexual assaults.
    Even factoring in the chance that some of these are repeat offenders, that would still be hundreds more violent criminals being held accountable for their actions.


    What if every year, in every state, 10 or 15 more rapists were identified, prosecuted, and convicted than what are identified, prosecuted, and convicted now? I think that would be a good thing.
    Suppose one half of victims spoke up

  32. Jenny 2017-10-20 09:09

    When I was in grade school and highschool in the redneck SD town I was in, I remember to this day being harassed about my appearance and being called ugly. Does this count as a form of sexual harassment? Or is this just plain bullying? Are bullying and harassment the same thing?
    I think one thing we could do is more education in the schools.

  33. Jenny 2017-10-20 09:11

    I also remember being made fun of by a boy b/c I did not have breasts yet. Is this sexual harassment? It starts with women when they’re very young.

  34. Ryan 2017-10-20 10:58

    Most people get picked on in grade school or high school. The world is not padded for our safety in every nook and cranny. Kids are cruel because they are not emotionally developed and don’t understand their own actions or the consequences of those actions. This is why we typically apply less culpability to the behavior of children.

    Maturity and mental capacity are moving targets, and not all people turn 18 and are suddenly aware of the impact their words or actions have on others – and not all people who are aware care anyway.

    To each their own, but I plan to raise my children with a philosophy of kind hearts and thick skin. Don’t treat anybody badly, but if somebody in school makes fun of you, get over it. If somebody crosses the line between annoyance and assault, stand up and deal with it using whatever method feels right at the time. I am a big fan of using wit and sarcasm to make bullies feel stupid if they deserve it, but I would not be opposed to my daughter punching a bully in the face if the wit and sarcasm don’t get the job done. I think raising our kids to run and hide from anything that dents their delicate self-image is making them incapable of dealing with any adversity at all.

    Yes, ideally everyone will be nice to each other. However, we don’t live in an ideal world, so I prefer to be realistic about the fact that sometimes bad things happen to good people, but those good people don’t have to crumble into sniveling piles at the first presence of an unwanted sensation.

  35. Donald Pay 2017-10-20 11:29

    I think everyone has probably been the subject of teasing at one time or another. Some is just good natured ribbing, and can be laughed off or ignored. The kind of teasing Jenny talks about hurts and can leave a scar on a girl of a certain age. I think that needs to be stomped on pretty hard. If I had heard anything like what Jenny related directed at my daughter, I would have required that young man to apologize to my daughter. Then I would have had a long and very direct discussion with him about how that sort of teasing feels to the person it is directed at.

    Men need to step up and make sure that sort of objectification of girls and women never happens. It can lead to a lot of problems later on.

  36. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-20 20:16

    Yup, Ryan, it would be great if more victims felt safe enough to speak up. But that doesn’t change the moral inequality I laid out to justify why we must be very careful in our exhortations that those victims speak up. We must not join the social pressure that makes them feel like they are to blame for what happened and for what happens to subsequent victims.

    Men do need to step up, as Donald says, and train their sons not to be jerks. Not to be—again, a negative action, something that should be far easier than asking victims to take the risk of going public and going to court.

  37. Ryan 2017-10-23 08:43

    Cory, you said twice in this comment thread alone that you support or encourage women speaking up:

    “I second Spencer’s call for justice and keeping other women safe from this at-large predator.”


    “We need victims who can speak up without the fear of losing their jobs and any employability in South Dakota.”

    I feel like your real opinion lies somewhere in between mine and the manufactured opinion of unconditional deference you are expressing here, apparently in order to appease even the most radical and idealistic (see unrealistic) mouthpieces who make this issue their pedestal and call any practicality in the response “victim blaming” or misogyny.

  38. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-24 05:27

    I appease no one. Read your fantasies into someone else’s words, Ryan.My statements are perfectly consistent. I want justice. I want women to be safe from predators grazing on the privileges of patriarchy. I want victims to be able to speak up without fear of retribution, and I hope that the new attention to this issue may represent a turning point in which women can speak up with less fear of retribution (although the responses from Hickey, Deutsch, Langer, Wiese, and other members of the GOP establishment indicate the patriarchal power structure and yahoo-Trumpist attitudes won’t go down without a fight).

    And I have not advocated unconditional deference. I have advocated for rejecting the false moral equivalency that your position suggests. I maintain that we must be careful in our discussion of this issue not to promulgate the idea that victims who choose not to speak share equal moral culpability with the pigs who commit the active harm.

  39. Ryan 2017-10-24 09:38

    I guess that was my problem – I was thinking that people were looking for ways to reduce these terrible crimes. I reasoned that an increase in reporting crimes would cause an increase in arrests, trials, and convictions, thereby reducing other crimes.

    I missed the part where this was all just an academic exercise to put moral culpability on somebody’s plate. Here you go: sexual predators are culpable for the crimes they commit. Their victims are not guilty in any way; they are victims.

    Wow, what a relief. Now everyone is safer. Forget taking actual, empirical steps to work on a problem, this was so much better. Now lots of people should pat me on the back for being so openly and unexpectedly progressive.

  40. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-24 21:52

    Discussing moral culpability here is not an academic exercise. I raise the issue because discussing moral culpability incorrectly—i.e., taking your line, Ryan, and haranguing already frightened victims for not being braver—only augments the ugly and incorrect feeling victims may already be struggling with that they are somehow to blame for the crimes committed against them. Augment that feeling, augment the stigma, and we get the practical result of more women not reporting their crime.

    Dang—academic discussion leads to practical impacts. Discuss the issue properly, make clear to women we are not blaming them and cannot logically blame them in any way as we can blame the criminals, and we may reduce the stigma and get the practical result you want.

    Let us recognize the far greater burden we are placing on women to take the positive step of reporting a crime than we do on men to take the negative step of not committing crimes in the first place. Let us acknowledge the difficulties victims face in coming forward and help, not harangue.

  41. Ryan 2017-10-25 08:32

    I didn’t say anything about bravery or haranguing anybody. I said encouraging victims to speak up seems like a good thing.

    Isn’t it possible that if the national message is “Please speak up, we want to help you immediately!” then victims of these assaults might feel more empowered to stand up and hold these predators accountable?

    If the national message is just “Men shouldn’t hurt women!” that provides nothing to empower victims who probably do feel shame or embarrassment and aren’t sure if they should speak up.

  42. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-25 22:16

    Let’s not overlook or oversimplify the point I’m making, Ryan. The short message you give isn’t a problem, but I’m saying that other parts of the things you and others have been saying sounded less like a fervent request backed with a pure and sincere desire to help and more like an effort to say to women, “Hey, speak up, or future crimes are your fault, too.” I’m saying that latter message, which some here have been sending, misassigns moral culpability and does practical harm to achieving our goal of rooting out this misogyny.

    The national message can be both of the statements you made in that last comment, Ryan. But we still have to be careful not to slide into the victim-blaming that cropped up previoulsy.

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