Sen. Norm McAllister addresses the Senate Rules Committee Wednesday at the Statehouse.
Updated at 6:07 p.m.
A powerful panel voted 3-2 Wednesday to recommend suspending Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin) from the Vermont Senate. The resolution, if approved by the full Senate in January, would bar him from serving until the conclusion of criminal sexual assault proceedings against him.
The Senate Rules Committee made its decision at a dramatic Statehouse hearing during which McAllister himself made a surprise appearance. He told his colleagues he was “not guilty of any of the charges” and warned against stripping him of his powers.
“I’ve had constituents tell me that they will bring a lawsuit if I’m not allowed to represent them,” the 64-year-old Highgate farmer said.
McAllister, who sat alone through much of the two-hour meeting, addressed the panel for five minutes before its members voted on his fate. He told them he had been “bullied, threatened” by some of his colleagues and “financially ruined” by the legal proceedings.
“I understand you feel you have to do something,” he concluded. “But it’s kinda like — I see it as, you’ve got somebody down on their knees, so kick ’em in the head.”
After the committee took its vote and McAllister left the room, he told reporters he was "maybe a little disappointed" by the outcome, but not surprised.
"I don't intend to go quietly," he said.
McAllister, who has served five terms in the House and two in the Senate, was arrested outside the Statehouse last May, a week before the legislature adjourned for the year. He pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of sexual assault and three misdemeanor counts of prohibited acts. The charges involve three women, one of whom worked for him at the Statehouse. Another has accused him of coercing her to exchange sex for rent.
Senate leaders removed McAllister from two committees last May and encouraged him to resign. After it became clear in recent weeks that he would not, they began a more vigorous debate over whether to expel or suspend him — or take no action until the conclusion of his criminal trial, currently scheduled for February.
At Wednesday’s meeting of the five-member Rules Committee, the leading proponent of expulsion, Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), conceded that he did not have the votes to kick McAllister out of the legislature.
Doing so before a jury reached a verdict, argued Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland), would go “against the very grain of what we believe in — and that’s the presumption of innocence.”
Though expulsion from the legislature appears to be unprecedented in Vermont, Senate Secretary John Bloomer said his research had led him to believe that ousting a member would require extensive hearings, as well as testimony from witnesses and the accused. That, argued Sen. John Campbell (D-Windsor), “could potentially interfere with any current criminal action that’s pending.”
So the committee instead took up two other resolutions.
One, sponsored by Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden), would suspend McAllister with pay “until all criminal proceedings currently pending against him have been dismissed.” The second, sponsored by Flory, would change Senate rules to create a special committee whenever a senator is charged with a felony. Such a committee would be barred from taking disciplinary action until a jury reached a verdict or a plea deal was accepted.
Baruth, who previously favored expulsion, said he had been persuaded to stake out a “middle ground” instead. Suspending McAllister, he argued, would not entail rendering judgment of guilt or innocence. It would be a way to “err on the side of protecting” those who work at the Statehouse from potential harm.
“When we move through the building, people are helping us, serving us, staffing us — and it’s a huge responsibility,” said Baruth, the majority leader. “If there’s a question, a substantial question, a felony question, about whether that power has been abused — and abused with someone in the role of a Statehouse intern — I believe, absolutely, the course of action is to suspend that person pending the outcome.”
Flory disagreed. She said that suspending McAllister was tantamount to expelling him and would deprive him of due process. She said it would also deprive his Franklin County constituents of one of their two delegates in the 30-member Senate.
“If we do a suspension, then we have a prolonged period of time that the residents in that area are being denied their constitutional right to fair representation,” Flory said. “It’s a rotten situation. I wish it had never happened. I wish the trial were over. But we have to play with the cards that are dealt us.”
Flory said her own resolution would establish a neutral process that would prevent the Senate from acting as “judge and jury.”
“This is not specific to Sen. McAllister,” she said. “This is for any of us in the future.”
But according to Baruth, giving up the right to discipline a member charged with a crime is “exactly the reverse of what this committee, the Rules Committee, should be doing.”
Even among the legislature’s lawyers, not all agreed on what must precede a vote on suspension. While all concurred that expulsion would require significant testimony, Bloomer said suspension would not.
“I do not believe you’d need to go through a full hearing due process,” he said.
Luke Martland, the legislature’s chief counsel, disagreed. He argued that the effect of suspension would be similar to that of expulsion and would therefore require some sort of due process.
Though Benning, the Republican minority leader, had initially favored expulsion, he said he found taking no action “unacceptable.” So, in spite of his reservations about suspension, he joined Campbell in voting for Baruth’s resolution. Flory and Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) opposed it.
Mazza, who remained silent for most of the Rules Committee meeting, said he saw flaws with each proposal and would vote for neither.
“I think they both deserve certainly some discussion, but at this point I don’t feel qualified to make that decision, knowing that the voters of Franklin County elected this person,” he said.
Flory’s resolution then failed on a 1-4 vote, with all of her colleagues opposing it.
According to Bloomer, the full Senate will take up the suspension measure on January 6, the day after it reconvenes for the session.