S. Dakota transfixed by page scandal
PIERRE, S.D. – A Statehouse scandal in which a lawmaker is accused of fondling a page has transfixed South Dakota, with many people following the case on TV and the Web as if it were a Hollywood reality show.
Sen. Dan Sutton, 36, is accused of groping the young man last year while the two shared a motel room at the start of the youth’s weeklong stint in the Legislature. The young man was 18 at the time.
The South Dakota attorney general and other law enforcement agents investigated the allegations and made no arrests. But a Senate committee accused Sutton of sexual misconduct and planned to wrap up investigative hearings Thursday.
Austin Wiese, now 19, testified that Sutton, a longtime personal and family friend, touched his genitals through his shorts as the two slept in a king-size bed last February.
“He laid his hand on my stomach for 30 seconds and I was just shaking. He moved his hand down,” said Wiese, now a college student. He said he jumped out of bed, pretended to have a cell phone call and fled the room.
While it is The Associated Press’ policy not to identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault, Wiese’s name was used in the public hearing, which was carried live on the Internet, and has been circulated by other media in the state.
Sutton has denied fondling the young man but acknowledged that he might have shifted in the bed and inadvertently touched him.
“I didn’t do what Austin is claiming that I did,” Sutton testified. “I loved Austin like a son, a son that I never had.”
The nine members of the panel will make a recommendation next week to the full Senate, which will decide what, if any, action to take. Lawmakers could censure, discipline or expel Sutton.
Nearly every TV station in the state has covered the hearings, and South Dakota Public Broadcasting has offered live audio on its Web site. The state’s largest newspaper, the Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, posted frequent online updates from the hearing room.
Sioux Falls TV station KELO has run live video from the hearings on its Web site. News Director Mark Millage said 750 viewers can log on at any one time, and people have complained because the link is maxed out.
“It’s a soap opera. There’s no question about that,” Millage said.
David J. Law of radio station KWAT in Watertown said his call-in show Thursday drew many comments on the Sutton hearings. And callers seemed to know a lot of details, indicating they are listening live or reading news accounts, he said.
In a state with a population of only 750,000 people, the story is a tangled web involving people with political, business and family connections stretching back for decades. The Sutton and Wiese families have been friends for years.
Asked why the young man might have made up the allegations, the senator suggested that they might be tied to the page’s father, Dennis Wiese, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor last year.
Sutton, also a Democrat, said the elder Wiese might have wanted to get make sure he did not enter the race. Or, he said, the allegations might be connected to a troubled business venture in which a development corporation led by Sutton lent money to the business led by Wiese.
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