MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate voted 20 to 10 Wednesday afternoon in an unprecedented vote to suspend Sen. Norm McAllister until criminal charges pending against him for sexual assault are resolved.
“Nobody knows more than me the seriousness of these charges, these allegations. I’ve got people who want to put me in prison for the rest of my life. I’m very much aware what is at stake,” McAllister told his colleagues on the Senate floor before they voted to oust him.
The historic vote came after more than an hour of discussion on the Senate floor, mostly by Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, and Republican Rutland County Sen. Peg Flory, a close friend and ally of McAllister.
“The situation we face today is an ugly one, there’s no other word for it,” Baruth said before the vote. “I have no doubt … that when we are finished no one will feel good about what we do today.”
“It’s my own personal believe that the number and the nature of the felony charges against Sen. McAllister requires us to suspend. Period,” Baruth added.
The 64-year-old McAllister was arrested at the State House in May and stands accused of sexually assaulting three women, including a personal employee he has referred to as a legislative intern, who allegedly lived with him in Montpelier at times. He has pleaded not guilty to three felony and three misdemeanor charges.
Speaking to his Senate colleagues, McAllister maintained his innocence and pledged to fight the charges in court.
“I have maintained my innocence from Day One. These false allegations that were brought against me will be disproved, I believe. I have faith in the court system,” he said. “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 person in this room that actually knows I’m not guilty of anything is me. Others may be judging me or pre-judging me based on what they read or saw. That’s not always fact.”
Following the vote, McAllister quickly walked off the Senate floor, retrieved a long, black coat from a committee room downstairs from the Senate chamber and walked out of the State House with reporters in tow. Two State House door keepers accompanied him, asking him several times if he wanted to be escorted away from reporters to his vehicle. He declined, and answered questions for more than 10 minutes.
Standing in the parking lot, McAllister declared the day’s proceeded to be “a foregone conclusion before we even started.”
“They have set a precedence so if they want to get rid of anybody for any reason with this, the way they did it, without hearings or anything else, then they can from now on because they have set a precedence,” he said. “If the majority decides on a certain vote that they want to suspend some people for a day until they get the vote the way they want it, they can. That’s what they’ve done today, in my opinion.”
He was unsure if he would return to the State House while under suspension.
“Oh God, I’ve got to get over today, alright?” he said. “They have taken away half of Franklin County’s vote by doing what they did. The presumption of innocence doesn’t matter here. It wasn’t thought about here. There was a presumption of guilt.”
Wednesday’s vote ended seven months of uncertainty for the chamber, and for McAllister. He has maintained his innocence and refused to resign since his arrest in May. He told reporters again on Wednesday that he has done nothing illegal, immoral or unethical.
McAllister’s colleagues have struggled with how to handle his presence in the chamber. Many had publicly urged him to resign. Sources said there was a last-ditch effort Tuesday night by McAllister’s allies to negotiate a leave-of-absence on his behalf but Senate leaders rejected that idea as too-little-too-late.
The effort to suspend McAllister pending the resolution of his criminal charges emerged after an initial effort to expel him lost steam. A number of senators backed away from supporting expulsion after learning it would require a formal hearing with witnesses and testimony. They feared it could jeopardize the criminal proceedings in court.
The Senate Rules Committee introduced the resolution to suspend McAllister on Tuesday after voting 3 to 2 last month to advance the resolution to the full Senate.
Flory offered a substitute resolution Wednesday that would have allowed him to remain a full, active member of the Senate until his criminal charges are resolved. Members rejected that plan, however, by a 10 to 20 margin.
Flory warned her colleagues that it is “dangerous” to begin suspending members simply because they are charged.
“I think the last thing anyone in this building wants to do, if Sen. McAllister is guilty — no way do we want to do something to interfere with the prosecution’s ability to successfully prosecute,” Flory said before offering her substitute resolution. “If he’s innocent, no way do we want to do something or should we do something with his defense’s ability.”
Flory said she would lead the effort to expel McAllister from the body if he is found guilty of the criminal charges.
“If there’s a guilty verdict I’ll guarantee you I’ll be the first one that brings up expulsion, but until then I think we have a duty to sit back and let the process work the way we, the legislators, wrote the laws, to make it work. We set up the court process. I don’t think it’s right to ignore it. I think it’s right to let the process play through,” she said.
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott issued a statement following the vote saying the vote was necessary.
“It is unfortunate the Senate was forced to take such action in this unprecedented situation, as it is my belief Senator McAllister should have resigned before now. Senator McAllister is charged with serious criminal offenses, and from my standpoint, if it were a law enforcement officer or teacher accused of crimes of this magnitude they would be placed on administrative leave,” Scott said. “This action allowed the Senate to govern its own member without getting involved in the criminal case, which could have been seen as influencing the case itself. It is now my hope the Vermont Senate can return to the issues at hand and work towards making Vermont a more prosperous state for families and businesses by concentrating on the fiscal fundamentals and growth of the economy.”
Republican Sen. Dustin Degree, McAllister’s Franklin County seat mate, voted in favor of suspending his colleague. He said the voters that both he and McAllister represent wanted the saga to come to an end.
“It’s my hope that we can move forward with the business of Franklin County without what has been an incredible distraction for everybody,” he said. “Since the Rules Committee passed the suspension resolution … it has become abundantly clear that the voters of Franklin County who have reached out to me wanted some sort of end to this situation and I think that this gives us the opportunity to move forward in a way that we didn’t have before.”
“I want to be clear — this is an imperfect solution and it does leave Franklin County, for the time being, with one senator and it’s my hope that the residents of Franklin County understand that I will work twice as hard to make sure that our voice is heard in this incredibly difficult time,” Degree added.
Before leaving the State House grounds, McAllister said he was not in a position to determine whether he would consider resigning, or whether he would seek re-election later this year.
“I could consider anything right now. You need to let the dust settle and let me think for a minute,” he said. “I think everything is in play right now.”
For now, he said he planned to talk with his family and supporters before determining anything about his future.
“I’m kind of drained right now. Kind of tired,” McAllister said.