The House committee investigating whether Franklin County’s two top law enforcement officials should be impeached laid out some details at its first meeting Tuesday for how it plans to investigate the many allegations of wrongdoing leveled against both men.
Likely among the committee’s first tasks: hiring a special counsel to investigate Franklin County Sheriff John Grismore and possibly the county’s state’s attorney, John Lavoie. The panel chair, Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, said a special counsel may be most helpful in Grismore’s case because the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs has already released a detailed investigation into Lavoie.
The report found that Lavoie cultivated a hostile work environment and repeatedly harassed and discriminated against his employees. Grismore is being investigated by the Vermont State Police for alleged financial wrongdoing. He also faces an assault charge stemming from an incident in which he repeatedly kicked a shackled man.
State police spokesperson Adam Silverman confirmed Monday that the agency is still investigating Grismore’s financial conduct, though he declined to elaborate.
“We really do need an investigator for at least (Grismore’s) particular matter,” LaLonde said Tuesday morning. “But we may also need special outside counsel to assist us with each of these matters because doing an investigation is new to all of us.”
The special counsel would report on its findings to the committee, which would then use that information — along with its own investigation — to determine whether the full House should adopt articles of impeachment against one or both county officials.
The committee on Tuesday delegated two of its members to start drafting the terms of a potential contract alongside the state’s Office of Legislative Counsel. Michael O’Grady, the Legislature’s deputy chief counsel, suggested the panel solicit bids from at least three potential contractors, a process he said could take between two and five weeks.
Committee members then would rank the bids and negotiate a final agreement. The state would keep the negotiation process confidential, according to O’Grady, though he said the final contract with a special counsel would be available to the public.
LaLonde suggested that the committee ask whatever contractor it works with to report back to the panel members by the end of July. In the meantime, he said, the committee could dig into the findings in the Lavoie report and take testimony about them.
The version of that report released to the public has multiple redacted names. Committee members said they expect to hold some of their meetings in executive session — which would be closed to the public — to protect witnesses speaking in both officials’ cases.
The panel’s draft rules of procedure, which members discussed Tuesday, state that it may enter into executive session — rare for a typical legislative committee — to protect its witnesses from potential retaliation, to consult with attorneys, to protect confidential information or “as otherwise necessary to enable” the committee to do its business.
“You want to encourage witnesses to provide you with information because some of your witnesses might be directly affected by their testimony,” O’Grady told committee members Tuedsay. Instead, “You’re saying, hey, this is going to be confidential.”
LaLonde said that members “certainly want to be as transparent as possible,” and he expects them to evaluate whether to hold closed sessions on a case-by-case basis.
The resolution setting up the committee — which was adopted by the full House earlier this month — also grants members power to subpoena witnesses. O’Grady said in the past decade or so in which he’s advised investigative panels in the Legislature, lawmakers only seriously considered issuing a subpoena once — and ultimately did not.
“Sometimes having the authority and the ability to issue subpoenas is enough to get cooperation without having to actually issue one,” Jennifer Carbee, the Legislature’s chief counsel, told committee members Tuesday.
The committee could run into challenges accessing some documents, particularly those related to Grismore’s case, members of the legislative counsel’s office said. That’s because one of the major allegations against the sheriff — that he mishandled finances — is the subject of a law enforcement investigation, and officials would likely have the grounds to claim some exemptions to records requests, O’Grady and others said.
At the same time, they said, it’s possible that committee members would be able to negotiate an agreement with other officials to get records the panel wants.
LaLonde said he expects the committee to vote on final rules of procedure at its next meeting, which is scheduled for June 1. Legislators and their staff have little to draw on in the way of precedent; the most recent impeachment in Vermont was in 1976. Staff also looked to more recent proceedings in Connecticut and Illinois, Carbee said.
In 1976, Washington County Sheriff Malcolm Mayo was impeached, but not convicted, after being accused of falsifying reports and failing to perform the duties of his office. A Vermont official has not been impeached and then convicted, however, since 1785.
Committee members plan to report on their findings to the full House whether they recommend impeachment or not. If they do, the committee — or possibly individual committee members — would introduce a resolution that sets forth impeachment articles.
One hundred House members — two-thirds of the chamber — must vote to adopt that resolution for either man to be impeached, as is laid out in the Vermont Constitution. If it passes, the process then would move to the Senate for a trial.
If lawmakers follow the 1976 proceedings, the speaker of the House would then appoint three “impeachment managers” to serve as prosecutors in the trial, according to House clerk BetsyAnn Wrask. The Constitution states that conviction would require a two-thirds vote of all the senators present — which is 20 lawmakers, assuming all are there.
Wrask told the House committee that it will have broad jurisdiction to determine what, if anything, constitutes an impeachable offense. The constitution states that officials who are “state criminals” can be impeached, but does not say what that phrase means.
She added that impeachable conduct does not necessarily need to be a crime.
“It seems possible that a constitutional officer may be impeached for conduct found by the General Assembly to violate public trust or to undermine the operation of government — even though that conduct is not specifically covered by criminal law,” Wrask said.
The clerk also underscored the historical value of the committee’s work.
“This is the furthest we’ve gotten since the 1970s,” Wrask said. “Anything you do now will be looked upon in the future as precedent.”