PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The South Dakota House decided Wednesday to investigate a Republican representative who said he had sexual contact with interns during the past two legislative sessions.
Lawmakers voted to form a select committee on discipline and expulsion to investigate the conduct of state Rep. Mathew Wollmann. House Majority Leader Lee Qualm said on the House floor that Wollmann told him he had consensual sexual contact with an intern in 2015 and 2016.
Wollmann told reporters after the vote that it occurred with two different interns, both over 21. He said he understood his actions were unacceptable and he would accept any punishment.
"I've tarnished the system, our title and this body as well as my name," Wollmann said. "This is the most difficult message that I could ever fathom giving, but tomorrow's a new day, and I just ask for forgiveness and I apologize for my actions."
When asked if he viewed his actions as sexual harassment, Wollman said he felt the conduct was with consenting adults. But he said they were "employed by the state of South Dakota, so I understand completely how it could be perceived or seen as unprofessional and unbecoming of a legislator."
The select committee will have nine members: five Republicans and four Democrats. Lawmakers could decide to expel, censure, discipline or exonerate Wollmann.
The 26-year-old Wollmann, of Madison, was first elected to the House in 2014. He previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Wollmann said he decided to come forward after he was approached Tuesday by a television station and asked about the situation. Qualm said Wollmann discussed the issue with him and in the House Republican caucus.
Qualm said he was first informed and started looking into the process of what lawmakers should do after an email in recent days from Republican Sen. Stace Nelson.
A legislative committee last week voted down a joint legislative rules change proposed by Nelson that would have explicitly barred legislators from sexual contact with interns and pages. At least one lawmaker said he felt existing rules and the legislative code of conduct were sufficient. They prohibit sexual harassment and call on lawmakers in general to maintain "the highest of moral and ethical standards." Nelson said Wednesday that he intends to push again for a rule change.
Qualm didn't say whether he believes Wollmann violated House rules.
"I have my opinion, obviously, but we need to let it run through the process," Qualm said. "That's why we set up the committee."