MONTPELIER — For the first time in Vermont history, the Vermont Senate has suspended one of its members, Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin County.
Area lawmakers on Wednesday reacted to that reality as McAllister’s refusal to resign also denies the county one of its two voices in the Senate.
The suspension came after efforts to convince McAllister, who is facing criminal charges for sexual assault, to resign failed.
Two-thirds of McAllister’s fellow senators voted for the suspension with only 10, including McAllister himself, opposing it.
McAllister, just before one of his colleagues launched a bid to prevent his outster, addressed his colleagues. He asserted his innocence, citing the fact that he has a daughter and granddaughters and has supported domestic violence legislation.
Suspending him would be “taking away from people who supported me and voted me into office,” said McAllister.
“I do not feel I should be ostracized for something I am not guilty of,” he said.
His colleagues were not persuaded.
McAllister apologized to his colleagues for the disruption the allegations have caused. He was arrested outside the Statehouse on May 7.
“It would have been much easier had I resigned way back in the beginning,” he said. “I’ve chosen not to take the easy route precisely because I know I did not do anything.”
He added, “The only person in the room who knows that I’m not guilty is me.”
Among the 20 senators voting for the suspension was McAllister’s fellow Franklin County Republican Dustin Degree. “It’s the most difficult vote I’ve ever had to make, and probably ever will make,” Degree told the Messenger last night. “I did what I thought was best for Franklin County and the Senate.”
Degree said he had received a groundswell of calls from constituents, mostly favoring suspension.
The suspension will last until either the state dismisses the charges against McAllister or he is exonerated at trial. If either of those things occurs, he will be allowed to reclaim his seat.
Should he plead guilty or be convicted, the Senate would need to take additional action, explained Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, chair of the Senate Rules Committee.
While he is suspended no replacement may be appointed to replace him, leaving Franklin County with a single senator.
“I hope that folks in Franklin County will reach out to me if they have problems and I will do my best to work twice as hard,” said Degree.
Rep. Carolyn Branagan, R-Georgia, chair of the Franklin County legislative delegation indicated the county’s House delegates are also prepared to help fill the gap in representation.
“We all plan to talk to the senators each time a vote comes up that affects Franklin County,” said Branagan, particularly when the votes concern agriculture, clean water, Northwestern Medical Center and the Northwest State Correctional Facility.
“We won’t have as much impact as a sitting senator would,” she said. “We’re trying to make the best of a bad situation.”
Had McAllister resigned someone could have been appointed to replace him. Degree said he had conversations with McAllister in which he urged him to resign right up to the last moment.
The Senate also could have chosen to expel McAllister. Had he been expelled a replacement could have been appointed by the governor
Power and duty
Baruth, who presented the suspension resolution to his colleagues, began his stating, “The situation we face today is ugly. There is no other word for it.”
The rules committee considered expulsion. Because it is permanent, expulsion requires a higher level of due process than suspension, which would end if McAllister was found not guilty or the charges were dismissed, explained Baruth.
An expulsion proceeding might have led to the Senate attempting to judge McAllister’s guilt or innocent ahead of the courts, he suggested. “Suspension avoided pre-judging Sen. McAllister,” said Baruth.
The rules committee modeled its resolution on one used in California to suspend three senators accused of corruption and weapons trafficking. The California Senate, too, had wanted to avoid interfering with the criminal case and protect the defendants’ presumption of innocence, according to Baruth.
The suspension motion temporarily strips McAllister of all of the powers of his office. He will retain his pay — $676 a week while lawmakers are in session — which the Senate is constitutionally barred from withholding, said Baruth, adding the committee had researched the pay issue thoroughly.
“It’s my own personal belief that the nature of the charges requires us to suspend him,” said Baruth. All discussion of the details of the charges was avoided, including the actions underlying the charges. Discussion was kept to the bare fact of the existence of the charges.
Baruth, however, did state the charges are bound up with power and abuse of power. He noted that one of the alleged victims worked for McAllister as an assistant or intern in the Senate.
“This building is filled to bursting with people who serve us,” said Baruth, specifically mentioning the legislative council, pages and lobbyists seeking assistance from legislators.
“We have young people and minors in our chamber,” he added.
“All of these people are under our care while they serve in this building,” said Baruth.
In other professions, such as teaching and law enforcement, those accused of abusing their power over others are suspended, Baruth noted. “The preeminent concern is the safety of the vulnerable,” he said.
Businesses, too, react when there are accusations of abuse of power, he pointed out. “Not one would dream of allowing a manager who has been criminally accused of assaulting his assistant to remain and have another assistant,” said Baruth.
One of the reasons for the swift response is because the Legislature has passed laws requiring it, he pointed out. “The question is whether the Vermont Senate having mandated the rest of the state react swiftly… will do so in our own chamber,” said Baruth.
“We are obligated to protect those who might be vulnerable because they are on the wrong side of the power divide in this chamber,” said Baruth.
Given McAllister’s refusal to resign, “We’re left with the path Sen. McAllister has himself chosen,” said Baruth.
“The state is watching all of us today,” Baruth said. “They want to know if we can be trusted to regulate ourselves.”
Sen. Peg Flory challenged the resolution, arguing it would deprive McAllister of due process and Franklin County of representation. By removing Franklin County’s representative, the Senators would be violating their own oath of office, she argued.
Her alternative resolution, which would have let McAllister remain in office until after his trial, was rejected 20-10.
Kris Lukens, head of Voices Against Violence, which works with victims of sexual assault, was among the spectators who packed the galleries in the Senate. “I think it was a really brave step for the Senate to take,” she said. “What was done today was the right thing to do.”
Lukens also praised Baruth’s comments about power. “He talked about power, and I felt that was appropriate. There’s a lot of power in this building,” she said.
The charges and how to address them have been the main topic of conversation among his Senate colleagues, said Degree. “It’s the focus. It’s the story and there’s so much we have to do,” he said.
“We have dozens to difficult conversations to have this year,” said Degree, specifically citing education and the budget. “We needed to get this behind us.”
Not only has it dominated conversations within the Senate, the McAllister situation has dominated conversations with his own constituents, said Degree.
“It was an issue that had to be put behind us so we could get work done,” said Rep. Kathleen Keenan, D-St. Albans.
“I think this is an imperfect solution,” said Degree. “Unless he chooses to resign we are left with a diminished voice.”
Should McAllister change his mind and resign, Branagan said she would not accept an appointment to his seat should one be offered. “I want to finish out my term, fulfill my promise to the people of Georgia,” she said.
Still to be resolved is a second investigation being conducted by the Dept. of Labor into labor practices on McAllister’s Highgate farm. Dirk Anderson, the department’s general counsel, Wednesday told the Messenger he could not comment on an ongoing investigation. He also could not speak to whether any referral would be made to the IRS, should the department discover evidence of failure to properly pay or report payroll or other taxes.