In Unprecedented Vote, Senate Suspends One Of Its Own

Jan 6, 2016

For the first time in its history, the Vermont Senate has suspended one of its own members.

The Vermont Senate voted 20-10 Wednesday afternoon to suspend a Franklin County lawmaker charged with multiple counts of sexual assault until his criminal case is resolved.

Approval of the resolution to suspend Republican Norman McAllister, pending the dismissal of the charges against him, culminates a tortuous legislative saga that began when state police arrested McAllister outside the Statehouse last spring. McAllister has been charged with several counts of sexual assault, including one involving a young woman he described as his "legislative intern."

Audio for this story will be posted by approximately 11 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 7.

Over the past few months, a number of senators have urged McAllister to resign, but he refused because he said he's innocent of all the charges.

The issue came before the Senate Rules committee last month and it voted 3-2 to suspend McAllister, with pay, until his criminal case has run its course.

The Senate chamber was packed for the debate to determine McAllister's fate. Extra security was brought in and large bags and backpacks were screened as people entered the chamber.

Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth introduced the resolution. 

"The situation we face today is an ugly one. No other word for it," Baruth said. "It's hard to imagine a more uncomfortable discussion and yet today's debate is crucial to our future as a Senate," adding that the “number and nature of felony charges against [McAllister] require us to suspend him.” 

Sen. Philip Baruth introduced the resolution to suspend McAllister, arguing that the Senate can't allow McAllister to retain legislative powers he's alleged to have abused so grossly.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

Baruth said that suspension was a step short of outright expulsion, and that it preserves the presumption of innocence McAllister should be afforded. 

But Baruth said the Senate can’t allow McAllister to retain legislative powers he’s alleged to have abused so grossly. McAllister’s alleged victims include a 21-year-old Statehouse intern he paid to assist him in Montpelier.  

At any place of business in Vermont, Baruth said, “no one would dream of allowing a manager who has been criminally accused of assaulting his assistant to remain in place.”   

“The state is watching all of us today,” Baruth said. “They want to know if we can be trusted to regulate ourselves.”

Rutland Sen. Peg Flory, however, said the Senate was overstepping its authority by preventing an elected official from carrying out his official duties. So long as McAllister is suspended, Flory said, Franklin County voters will lack representation in the Senate.

“We make the law. We don’t interpret it; we don’t enforce it,” Flory said.

Rutland Sen. Peg Flory said the Senate was overstepping its authority by preventing an elected official from carrying out his official duties, and denying Franklin County voters of representation.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

Flory opposed the resolution because she said it violated the legal principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

"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.

Flory, a Republican, wasn’t alone in her opposition to the resolution. Windsor County Democrat Richard McCormack said the Senate ought not involve itself in matters of criminal law.

“This is about the criminal charges, and we should not be dealing with the criminal charges,” McCormack said.

McCormack said he takes the accusations "very seriously." But he said, “it is the court’s job," not the Senate’s, “to determine guilt or innocence.”

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott confers with colleagues during a recess. The Senate rejected a substitute resolution, offered by Sen. Peg Flory, that would have allowed McAllister to serve until a jury delivers a guilty verdict or McAllister pleaded guilty.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

Flory offered a substitute resolution that would have allowed McAllister to serve until a jury delivers a guilty verdict or McAllister pleaded guilty. The amendment was rejected, 20-10.

McAllister was defiant before and after the vote, saying he’s done nothing wrong.

“It would have been much easier ... had I resigned, way back in the beginning,” McAllister said. “But I felt that I was not guilty of anything."

Following the vote, McAllister was escorted out of the Statehouse by members of the sergeant at arms' staff. Surrounded by reporters in a nearby parking lot, McAllister said the senators who voted to suspend him had set a very dangerous precedent for the future.

Sen. McAllister speaks with reporters outside the Vermont Statehouse after his suspension. McAllister was defiant before and after the vote, saying he's done nothing wrong.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR File

"They can ignore constitutional rights like they have, then I see it as a travesty that has happened to the state, not a travesty that I did," McAllister said. "It's on them. They did it."

McAllister says he needs several days to review his suspension and that it's possible that he'll consider resigning in order to give voters in Franklin County full representation in the State Senate.

Update 5:07 p.m. This post has been updated to include additional reporting.