Vermont senators made history on Wednesday, voting for the first time since their institution was established almost 200 years ago to kick out one of their own. The presiding officer called it a “dark, difficult day” for the Legislature’s upper chamber.
In a 20-10 decision, with all members present, the Senate suspended Sen. Norman McAllister, the Franklin County Republican charged with sexual assault, meaning he can no longer serve, though he will continue to be paid. Lawmakers make approximately $675 per week during the session.
The vote came after a discussion on the Senate floor that lasted several hours and included McAllister maintaining again that he had done nothing wrong and did not deserve to be stripped of his powers.
The ornate Senate chamber was relatively full, yet hardly packed, and several women who are advocates for domestic abuse victims attended, sitting in the balcony. Students from Johnson State College also were there, as well as Vermont historian Howard Coffin. A few House members stopped in. There were no outbursts or disruptions. The mood was serious and appeared somber at times. Several senators said afterward they were emotionally drained and wished McAllister had resigned instead of forcing them to send him packing.
After the vote, a clearly disappointed McAllister told reporters outside the Statehouse that “everything is on the table” and that he might consider resigning “after the dust settles.” He would not say whether he would legally challenge the suspension, but suggested a constituent might.
During a 15-minute session, the suspended senator also maintained he never had sex with the young woman he hired to work as an intern at the Statehouse, a statement at odds with claims by the victim and contrary to comments the senator previously made.
Senators who voted in favor of suspension sided with the Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, who said the seriousness of the criminal charges alone warranted removing McAllister from office, at least until the criminal charges are settled.
Those voting against the resolution were primarily concerned they were prejudging McAllister before his case goes to trial, which is expected to occur sometime this spring. Senators also expressed concern a suspension would deprive Franklin County voters of full representation.
Before the vote, McAllister told VTDigger: “I think it’s a forgone conclusion.”
McAllister fought the suspension to the end. He told his colleagues the allegations that had been brought against him were false and would be disproved in court.
“It would have been much easier had I resigned way back in the beginning, but I felt that I was not guilty of anything, and the only one who knows I’m not guilty is me. Others may prejudge me for what they read or saw but that’s not always fact.
“I do not feel I should be ostracized for something I am not guilty of,” McAllister said.
But his attempts to persuade his colleagues fell on deaf ears. A substitute amendment proposed by his closest ally, Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, that would have blocked suspension, failed by a 20-10 margin.
McAllister, 64, has been charged with sexually assaulting two women, including a young woman he described as his intern. McAllister was arrested on the next to last day of the 2015 legislative session in May. Later, he was stripped of his committee assignments. He has denied all criminal charges and has said he did nothing wrong — criminally, morally or ethically.
Baruth outlined what the suspension would mean and said it offered a compromise between those who favored expulsion and those that favored doing nothing at all. He said expulsion was not pursued because some senators feared it could open a hearing process that could require witnesses to testify before the Senate and possibly jeopardize criminal proceedings.
Baruth said the senators faced an “ugly” situation.
“I have no doubt when we finish no one will feel good about what we do here today,” Baruth said. “As we are voting to suspend one of our own. It’s hard to imagine a more uncomfortable discussion, and yet today’s debate is crucial for the future of the Senate.”
Baruth urged senators to be frank during the debate even though McAllister was seated with them and then he proceeded to briefly describe the criminal charges McAllister faces.
“If it’s tough to hear, that says a great deal about why those charges and this chamber do not mix,” Baruth said. “They are extremely serious and carry with them the possibility of life in prison.”
Baruth then recounted that McAllister was charged with multiple felony counts and a range of “sexual activities.”
By suspending McAllister, Baruth said the senators sought to protect both McAllister’s constitutional right to a fair trial and the people who serve at the will of the Senate — pages, interns, administrative assistants and legislative counsel.
“The feeling of the majority was that the suspension avoided prejudging McAllister,” Baruth said. “It was not intended to express a sentiment or render a verdict.”
However, Flory, an attorney, said that was exactly what senators were doing.
“The very concept of innocent until prove guilty is so basic that to step on that and say because somebody has been charged we are going to remove them just goes against every grain in my body,” Flory said.
Democrat Alice Nitka of Windsor County said before the final vote that the Senate had taken the “politically savvy” but easy way out by not moving forward with a vote on expulsion. Nitka voted against the suspension because she said it prejudges McAllister.
Fellow Windsor County Democrat Richard McCormack also voted against the resolution.
“It’s not up to us to determine guilt or innocence,” McCormack said. “If we were not implicitly determining guilt, we would literally have nothing to discuss.
“I think the cat’s out of the bag on this,” he said. McCormack cautioned senators to honor the separation between the branches of government: The Legislature should make laws and let the judiciary enforce them. He also warned about bowing to public pressure.
“Jesus was put to death by the will of the majority. Socrates was put to death by the will of the majority,” McCormack said.
Among those supporting the suspension was McAllister’s seat mate, Sen. Dustin Degree, also of Franklin County.
Before the vote was taken, McAllister removed all the papers from his desk and put them in the recycling bin underneath. He left the building willingly, escorted by members of the Sergeant-at-Arms staff, who offered to help McAllister get though the scrum of reporters on the way to his car. The senator laughed and said he was fine.
After the vote, many senators were clearly bothered by the proceedings and several said there were “no winners.”
Sen. Kevin Mullin, one of McAllister’s former roommates, voted against suspension.
“I don’t think any of it was a surprise,” Mullin said. “I think pretty much everyone in the building knew how the vote was going to come down. My major disappointment is that he didn’t do the right thing and just resign.
“But I don’t think we should be putting ourselves in the role of the judiciary,” Mullin said. “And this is really problematic because the people of Franklin County are being denied full representation. That being said, I recognize Sen. McAllister probably shouldn’t be serving here.”
“I don’t think there were any winners and losers here today,” said Mullin.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott presided over the proceedings and was spent afterward.
“A very difficult, dark day for the Senate,” he said, still sitting in his presiding officer’s chair. “Somewhat of an empty feeling. There were no winners in this case and I knew that coming in, regardless of the outcome, I wasn’t going to feel good about this.”
Scott said he would have voted in favor of suspension. The lieutenant governor only votes in the event of a ties.
“I think the Senate did the right thing,” said Scott, who is running for governor.
Vermont, established in 1777, had a unicameral legislature until 1836. It added a Senate by constitutional amendment.
Sen. Richard Mazza, D-Colchester/Grand Isle, who voted against the resolution, said: “It’s a sad day. It was something no one looks forward to, but it’s over. It’s very disappointing from all sides.”
The vote was as follows:
Note: VtDigger chief political reporter Jasper Craven also contributed to this report.