MONTPELIER — The Senate Rules Committee voted Wednesday in favor of sending a resolution seeking the suspension of Franklin County Sen. Norm McAllister, who is charged with several sex crimes, to the full Senate next month.
The 3 to 2 vote on the suspension resolution offered by Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, came after the panel rejected another resolution from Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, on a 4 to 1 vote, that would have amended the Senate’s rules to prevent it from acting in any manner until any pending felony charges are settled in court.
McAllister, if suspended under the resolution, would continue to receive his pay because it is constitutionally protected unless he is expelled, Baruth said.
Sens. Baruth, Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, and John Campbell, D-Windsor, voted in favor of the suspension resolution. Sens. Flory and Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, voted against it. Flory was the only senator to vote in favor of her resolution.
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.
Because McAllister has refused to resign, and said again Wednesday that he will not do so, his Senate colleagues have considered various options. An earlier proposal to expel him floated by Benning has wilted in recent weeks after Senate Secretary John Bloomer said it would require a hearing with witnesses and evidence. Many senators indicated they did not want to pursue that action because it could jeopardize the prosecution’s criminal case against McAllister.
“It struck me as against the very grain of what we believe in and that’s the presumption of innocence,” Flory said. “However, to ignore the fact that there is something going on in the senate also raised some concerns,” she said.
That resulted in the two competing proposals from Baruth and Flory that were considered by the Rules Committee Wednesday in a lengthy and dramatic meeting that included testimony from McAllister himself. The votes came after nearly two hours of debate that included legal opinions from Bloomer and Luke Martland, chief legal counsel for the Legislature’s non-partisan Legislative Counsel.
McAllister, himself, also addressed the committee for about five minutes and proclaimed his innocence.
“This has been a horrendous thing on me, personally, through the year. I never intended to have this kind of showdown with anybody. As you know, I have said that I am not guilty of any of the charges and I’m standing by that,” McAllister said before the votes took place. “I look at this proposal by Sen. Baruth as the same thing as expulsion. It’s different wording, it does the same thing. It doesn’t allow me to represent the people who elected me.”
“I have not, to my knowledge, broken any rules of the Senate, ethics or otherwise,” he added. “I took my constitutional oath extremely serious.”
McAllister told reporters after the meeting that he felt “maybe a little disappointment” from the vote but said he was not surprised. He vowed that he would not “go quietly.”
Baruth said he could not support Flory’s proposal because it would prevent the Senate from acting whenever a senator is charged with a crime, no matter how serious the crime is. He said the Senate is “supposed to regulate” its own members.
“We would be prevented from acting in Sen. McAllister’s case. I believe that’s exactly the reverse of what … the Rules Committee should be doing. I think we should act in this case. We certainly shouldn’t refuse to act and then refuse to act in every case in the future,” he said. “I can’t support this although I appreciate the sentiment that brought it forward.”
Flory, a lawyer, defended her proposal, saying it left judgment to the judicial system.
“It says the Senate will not be judge and jury. The Senate will wait until the judge and jury gives a decision and then we’ll take action, not necessarily in conformance with the judge and jury,” Flory said.
The panel had a lengthy discussion about whether the suspension resolution would survive a legal challenge. Bloomer, who said the resolution is based on what was used against three California lawmakers who faced criminal charges, does not require so-called “due process,” meaning a formal hearing with testimony.
But Martland, who called it an “awkward situation” to offer an opinion different from Bloomer, said he disagreed. He said it is an issue in which “smart, well-meaning attorneys might disagree.”
“We think there is a good argument that some form of due process may be required,” Martland said.
Flory said her own resolution was intended to prevent challenges and protect the criminal case.
“I tried to put out something that protected the criminal process with the least amount of risk to all involved that would give the public the reassurance that we are taking this matter seriously, but we are also taking the constitutional rights of the prosecution and defense seriously,” she said.
McAllister, who said this past summer “has been one of the worst summers other than losing my wife,” indicated to the committee that a legal challenge could be forthcoming if the full Senate votes to suspend him.
“I have had a lot of support from my constituents, my neighbors, family, all of that. In fact, they’re why I haven’t quit because they’re pushing me not to,” he said. “I have had constituents tell me that they will bring a lawsuit if I’m not allowed to represent them … if that’s necessary. I would prefer it wasn’t necessary.”
McAllister would not say if he would challenge a suspension himself when asked by reporters following the committee meeting.
Flory’s argument was not enough to sway Benning, who is a criminal attorney.
“I do not wish to cede the Senate’s responsibilities and authorities over to the court system,” he said.
Mazza voted against both resolutions. He said McAllister’s trial, which could begin as early as February, is near and the Senate should postpone any action.
“At this point I don’t feel qualified to make that decision,” he said. “I just don’t want to be the one that damages the court case at all.”
McAllister, when making his case to the committee, said he has never been a danger to anyone.
“To have this happening at this level by my colleagues is quite disturbing. I don’t believe any of my actions have ever shown that I have ever been a threat to anybody, and I’ve been in this building for 13 years,” he said. “I see it as, you’ve got somebody down on their knees so kick them in the head, and that’s they way I look at this proceeding.”
The resolution, now approved by the committee, will be taken up immediately when the Senate reconvenes. McAllister said he plans to be on the floor to defend himself and discourage his colleagues from approving it.