Senate Leaders Stand by Decision to Suspend McAllister | Off Message

Senate Leaders Stand by Decision to Suspend McAllister


Sen. Norm McAllister, left, and attorney Brooks McArthur Thursday outside Franklin County Superior Court. - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Sen. Norm McAllister, left, and attorney Brooks McArthur Thursday outside Franklin County Superior Court.
After state prosecutors dismissed two sexual assault charges against Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin) Thursday, leaders of the Vermont Senate said they stood by their January decision to suspend him from the body.

"In a word, yes, absolutely we did the right thing," said Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden), the Democratic majority leader.

"The approach the Senate took was not to prejudge McAllister in any way," he said. "It was to say: Without a look at the state's case, we can say that there are multiple serious sexual assault charges pending, and we don't believe he should be wielding powers as a senator while it's pending."

Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), the Republican minority leader, agreed. 

"Based on the information we had at the time, it was clear the Senate was going to be in a state of dysfunction," he said. "It was never about Norm McAllister's guilt or innocence. This was about the Senate's ability to function, and my opinion at the time was it would not."

Prosecutors brought the first of two expected McAllister trials to a precipitous close Thursday, citing an unspecified "ethical dilemma" that arose after the first day of testimony Wednesday. The case focused on the allegations of a 21-year-old woman who accused the senator of sexually assaulting her when she worked for him at his Franklin goat farm and then as an unofficial Statehouse assistant. McAllister has maintained his innocence, and his lawyers repeatedly questioned the woman's credibility when she testified Wednesday.

Franklin County Deputy State's Attorney Diane Wheeler said Thursday she still expected to move forward with the second trial. In that case, another former employee accused McAllister of forcing her to have sex in exchange for rent — a charge he also denies. 

Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell (D-Windsor) noted Thursday that the burden of proof in a criminal matter is higher than what the Senate had to consider. He said, "It was clear there was behavior that did not warrant [McAllister] sitting in the Senate."

Not everyone agreed. When the 30-member chamber voted in January to suspend McAllister, nine of his colleagues joined him in voting no. One was Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland), who shared a Montpelier apartment with McAllister and had been expected to testify Thursday, before the charges were dropped.

"There wasn't any due process," Mullin said of the Senate suspension proceedings. "He didn't get to present a case and nobody really presented a case against him."

Mullin called the suspension "the worst of all possible outcomes," because McAllister's Franklin County constituents lost representation in the Senate, while taxpayers continued to pay his salary.

McAllister isn't likely to return to the Statehouse anytime soon. The legislature has adjourned for the year — and when the Senate voted to strip him of his voting powers, it did so "until all criminal proceedings currently pending against him have been dismissed." His second trial may take months to schedule and complete. 

Even after his suspension, McAllister filed papers last month to run for reelection to his two-member Senate district. He faces a Republican primary against fellow incumbent Sen. Dustin Degree (R-Franklin) and Rep. Carolyn Branagan (R-Georgia). The top two vote-getters in the August 9 primary will face off in November against former senator Sara Kittell and Friends of Northern Lake Champlain executive director Denise Smith — both Democrats.

Branagan said Thursday that she did not believe the outcome of the first trial would affect the race. She said that while she tends not to raise the issue with voters, "some of them mention it to me."

"I really don't think they're eager for any more salacious details," she said. "I think they want to move on."

Though she's running in the Republican primary, Branagan said she is also collecting signatures to run as an independent — in case McAllister and Degree both defeat her. 

"I don't know what's going to happen, but I know that I can do the best job representing Franklin County in the Senate, so I want to get my name on the [general election] ballot," she explained. 

Smith said she has had no qualms about raising McAllister's legal travails on the campaign trail. 

"Really, to me it's about who's representing me down there [in Montpelier] and who's representing my kids. It's part of the reason I'm running, to be honest," she said. "I feel really strongly that we need people that have some sort of moral compass — and that don't abuse power and privilege."

Asked outside the courtroom Thursday about his reelection campaign, McAllister declined to comment. Degree and Kittell did not immediately return calls Thursday afternoon. 

Baruth and Benning both said their respective parties would not go out of their way to defeat McAllister. According to Baruth, Democrats are "playing for keeps" in both Franklin and Rutland counties "regardless of who comes out of their primaries, so there wouldn't be any special effort if it happened to be McAllister."

Benning said it would be inappropriate for him to weigh in on a GOP primary. But, he added, "Do I believe two Republicans who do not have this cloud hanging over them have a better chance in the general election? Of course."

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