HARTLAND — Senate Democrats are moving toward seeking the suspension of a Republican member of the body accused of sexual crimes to avoid interfering with his criminal case.
Fifteen members of the Democratic caucus met Saturday at the timber frame home of Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, and one on the phone, to discuss how the body should proceed regarding Franklin County Sen. Norm McAllister.
The 64-year-old McAllister was arrested at the State House in May and stands accused of sexually assaulting three women, including a legislative intern who allegedly lived with him in Montpelier at times. He has pleaded not guilty to three felony and three misdemeanor charges, and his criminal case is pending.
McAllister has refused to resign, despite immense pressure from both Republicans and Democrats. His appearance at the start of the upcoming legislative session, which begins early next month, threatens to overshadow other issues lawmakers are looking to address.
An effort to expel McAllister from the body has lost steam in recent weeks as senators have raised concerns about interfering with his criminal case. Expelling a senator would require due process, meaning a hearing with witnesses, testimony and evidence. Such a spectacle could harm the prosecution’s case against McAllister, many senators have said.
Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, speaking to his caucus in Campbell’s living room overlooking Quechee Mountain, said he believes the Senate must address McAllister’s expected presence at the State House next month immediately.
“I know we’re never going to be unanimous on the issue, but I think it’s important that, as a Senate, we deal with this issue forthrightly, immediately, efficiently, and to the extent possible, with one voice,” he said. “I think it’s reasonably clear that Norm may well be there on the first day of the session, and that being the case, I believe the Senate needs to act very quickly.”
McAllister did not return a message seeking comment Saturday.
The Senate’s Rules Committee met privately last month to consider its options. Baruth, who is a member of that committee, said it considered seeking McAllister’s expulsion as well as doing nothing. But, the committee “was not of one mind about what we should do.”
As a result, Baruth worked with Senate Secretary John Bloomer to craft a resolution seeking to suspend McAllister. The resolution, which he pitched to the caucus Saturday, is based on a recent suspension of three California lawmakers who were charged with crimes.
“Resolved by the Senate: That the Senate hereby suspends Senator Norman H. McAllister from exercising any of the powers of his office as a Member of the Senate until all criminal proceedings currently pending against him have been dismissed,” it reads.
The resolution would be in line with how officials are commonly dealt with in other professions when facing criminal charges, Baruth said.
“You are frequently suspended while the case is adjudicated,” he said.
The Senate does have the power to suspend members, Bloomer said. Seeking a suspension could be done without the due process involved in an expulsion. If challenged by McAllister in court, the Senate could then determine if it wants to pursue the more drastic step of expulsion, according to Bloomer.
“I am less convinced that the challenge on … a suspension would be successful,” Bloomer said.
If suspended, McAllister would continue to receive his legislative pay, but would not be allowed to take his seat on the Senate floor. He would be allowed to sit in the gallery if he chose to. The Senate’s Committee on Committees has already stripped McAllister of his committee assignments.
“Constitutionally, once you’re elected you’re going to get paid. We don’t have the power, at least the opinion we got from (legislative) council, is that we don’t have the power to stop his salary,” Baruth said. “I didn’t want to muddy the waters with that. What I’m proposing is this piece of language, and unfortunately, that would mean that Sen. McAllister would continue to get paid, but I don’t see a way to do that without changing the Constitutional framework.”
For Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, maintaining McAllister’s pay is “pivotal” to ensure the action of suspending him does not pass judgement on his alleged crimes.
“If we can suspend his pay and his title, then we have in fact indicated that he’s guilty,” she said.
Baruth’s proposed resolution sparked more than an hour of debate, and not everyone agreed that the Senate should act.
“Why, with all the problems that we’re facing in the Senate and in the Legislature, why is a Chittenden County senator so wrapped up in the Franklin County scandal or whatever you want to call it, and devoting — sounds like and looks like it — hours and hours of time to get rid of a senator that got elected by his peers?” Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, said. “Why aren’t we spending, as a caucus, our time on the serious problems that are facing all of our citizens, and maybe not quite so much time on one individual that we don’t know if he’s guilty or not?”
Baruth, who chairs a sexual harassment committee, said the committee will be offering a training the first week of the legislative session and did not want McAllister “sitting there during that training.”
“Why?” Starr responded.
“Maybe he should,” Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, added.
But Baruth said the body should be looking to protect everyone that works or visits the State House.
“In the Senate we have pages. We also have (legislative) council. I honestly believe that the Senate needs to step up and deal with this,” he said. “I think it really hurts the Senate as an institution and it hurts our caucus since we control the institution in terms of our votes, if we don’t address it.”
Starr rejected the notion that senators could treat other members as a hired worked and suspend him.
“We didn’t hire Norm McAllister. We didn’t have anything to do with, matter of fact, we probably worked in the opposite direction of trying to not hire or elect Norm McAllister. But, yet, we’re out there trying to suspend him,” Starr said. “I really have reservations about the majority party trying to suspend somebody that we had nothing to do with hiring or electing, out of office. I just think we could spend our time in a much more positive direction and help, probably, a lot more people, than what we’re doing with our time.”
Others had reservations about acting based on the limited information they had about the case, most of which has come from media reports about McAllister’s case.
“Most of what we say and what we feel is informed by media reports,” Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, said. “It’s not a good way to make decisions and we should be embarrassed speaking on the floor about something that we saw on television or read in the newspaper.”
Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, said the Senate is compelled to act.
“Particularly the pages in my mind, but if any women in the State House feel that there’s a risk, we have to address that. That’s the bottom line for me,” he said. “I don’t know who here thinks that if we don’t address this in some way early on it is not going to be a perpetual story throughout the whole session for some reason or another.”
Campbell, who supports the suspension resolution, said the parents of at least one legislative page have inquired about the safety of their children.
Zuckerman said he supports seeking McAllister’s suspension because it would allow the Senate to then focus on other business.
“We should be spending our time on issues. The fastest way to get back to issues is to resolve this as quickly as possible,” he said.
“We’re creating this issue,” Starr interjected.
“No, no, no,” Zuckerman replied.
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, has floated her own proposal to the Rules Committee. It calls for amending the Senate rules to allow for a special committee of five appointed senators to be called when a member is charged with a crime. However, the committee, under her proposed rule, “shall suspend all further activities and shall not meet again” until the case is adjudicated in court.
Several senators at Saturday’s caucus, including Baruth, said that was not acceptable. He said the Senate would be “automatically disempowered if there is a criminal charge.”
“We would be tying our hands in every situation involving a criminal charge going forward,” he said.
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, has crafted another resolution seeking to expel McAlllister. It’s unclear if Benning will introduce it when lawmakers return next month. Baruth told the caucus Saturday he is looking to gather support for his suspension resolution to stave off an ugly battle on the Senate floor.
“It would literally be the first thing that we take up and I think that’s appropriate,” he said. “If we can avoid a series of competing resolutions, if we can avoid a floor fight, if we can avoid not living up to the expectations of the people of the state of Vermont, I think we should do that.”
Baruth said he has also worked with the Sergeant at Arms to create a registry for interns. The Rules Committee will introduce language to amend the Senate’s rules making it every senator’s obligation to ensure interns are registered.
“The idea is that we begin a process of making sure that those people when they sign up as interns, they are going to be directed to our permanent rules on sexual harassment and the procedures surrounding sexual harassment,” he said.
Baruth said Saturday he believes there is “strong support” for his resolution to suspend McAllister and will move forward with it. He acknowledged, however, that a debate is inevitable.
“No matter what we do there will be a debate on the floor. I don’t think there’s any way to avoid debating this,” he said.
Listen to the Senate Democratic caucus discuss potential actions against Franklin County Sen. Norm McAllister: