Vermont's Senate Isn’t Sure What To Do About Norm McAllister

Oct 22, 2015

State Senate officials are considering their options for how to deal with embattled Franklin County Republican Sen. Norm McAllister in case he does not resign before the legislative session starts in January.

McAllister, 64, was arrested at the State House in May and stands accused of sexually assaulting three women, including a legislative intern. According to court documents, that woman told police that she was as young as 16 when McAllister first assaulted her.

McAllister pleaded not guilty to three felony and three misdemeanor charges, and his criminal case is pending.

In an interview published last week in Seven Days, McAllister adamantly denied the charges and indicated he will not resign. That entrenched position is not sitting well with Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning. The Caledonia County Republican wrote to McAllister on Friday calling on him to resign and including a prewritten resignation letter that McAllister could sign and submit.

“Certainly you know by now that any attempt on your part to come back to the statehouse with trial(s) pending will be extraordinarily uncomfortable for every individual in the building, including you,” Benning wrote in the letter, first reported by Seven Days late Tuesday. “You will be unable to fulfill your Senate responsibilities for your constituents. The Senate will be in complete disarray as your colleagues are subpoenaed into your trial.”

Benning also indicated he would file a resolution calling for McAllister’s expulsion if he does not agree to resign by Nov. 1, which Benning said McAllister told him months ago he would do if his case was not resolved by then.

McAllister did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment.

Senate Secretary John Bloomer has been exploring how the Senate can expel McAllister. Bloomer said the Vermont Constitution is clear: Each legislative body can expel its own members. The challenge, he said, is creating the process to do so.

“It’s never been done that I can find in Vermont, so I’ve looked in other states,” Bloomer said Wednesday. “I’m using that as research.”

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, said he has been working with Bloomer throughout the summer and fall to ensure the Senate is prepared.

“All along it has been the intention of my office that we have John present the options that’s found to our Rules Committee and then the Rules Committee will then determine which way is best for the Senate to proceed,” he said Wednesday.

But the Senate could be spurred into action by a resolution like the one Benning has promised, according to Bloomer. Such a measure, however, “doesn’t even exist until January” when lawmakers return to the State House.

Campbell said he is “a bit frustrated” with Benning’s actions and is hopeful the process will be done by the body as a whole.

"The key, I think, is the Senate is here to act as a whole, not by individual fiat or at the recommendation of an individual senator." - Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell

“The key, I think, is the Senate is here to act as a whole, not by individual fiat or at the recommendation of an individual senator,” he said. “The key for us is to make sure that the Senate continue to be able to meet without any interruption or distraction so that we can do the people’s business. If we proceed in the way that Secretary Bloomer is going to suggest, then I think that we will be able to do that.”

Should Benning or other senators introduce resolutions seeking McAllister’s ouster, Bloomer said he will recommend they be referred to the Rules Committee, where the remaining process will be outlined.

Fellow senators worry that Sen. Norm McAllister's presence in the statehouse will be a distraction at the beginning of the 2016 legislative session. McAllister is shown here speaking on the Senate floor in May 2014.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR File

“There has to be an investigation of some kind and a report to the Senate,” Bloomer said. “They have to have some kind of basis. You can’t do it just on what you guys are printing in the newspaper. That doesn’t mean it’s not accurate.”

The Rules Committee would have to determine how to conduct an investigation and hold a hearing.

“Technically, it could go to an ethics panel if it was established. It could go to (the Judiciary Committee). I think I’d probably recommend they establish some kind of committee to do the investigation and then report back,” Bloomer said.

Should the issue get that far, McAllister would be afforded an opportunity to make his case to his colleagues. The outcome of the process could vary, Bloomer said.

“Your sanctions can be anything, in my opinion, from a private reprimand all the way up to a public one or expulsion,” he said.

Investigating McAllister and holding a hearing could prove to be the most difficult step, Bloomer said, because the ongoing criminal case likely means people with knowledge of it will be unwilling to participate, including law enforcement officers.

“What do you really think they’re going to say? They’re going to be told by their superiors that they really can’t comment,” Bloomer said. “Where are you going to get enough of a basic foundation to report?”

The entire process will take some time and won’t be accomplished on the first day of the session, making McAllister’s fate in the Senate a story for weeks after lawmakers return to Montpelier. Bloomer said it would likely occupy the first few weeks of the legislation session.

“It could happen within a week or two. It doesn’t need to be a month,” Bloomer said.

Lawmakers could return to Montpelier before January if Gov. Peter Shumlin called them back for a special session. It would provide lawmakers additional time to address the situation before beginning their legislative work. That has largely been ruled out by the governor, barring any unforeseen circumstances.

"Your sanctions can be anything, in my opinion, from a private reprimand all the way up to a public one or expulsion." - Senate Secretary John Bloomer

“A special session would likely include expenses to Vermont taxpayers. The governor is hopeful Sen. McAllister will resign immediately,” Shumlin spokesman Scott Coriell said.

The governor himself weighed in at a Thursday  news conference.

“I think Vermonters would agree that it’s in Franklin County’s best interest, it’s in Vermont’s best interest for Senator McAllister to resign - yesterday," Shumlin said. "Having said that, if he doesn’t resign by January, the Senate’s going to have to act.”

Meanwhile, the Senate’s nine-member Republican caucus is not unified on how to deal with McAllister. In an email chain among GOP senators, reported late Tuesday by Seven Days, Rutland County Sen. Peg Flory outlined her opposition to a resolution to oust McAllister.

“We still have, in this Country, the presumption of innocence (although it seems with sex accusations that presumption is fictitious),” Flory wrote. “Under the process for expulsion, Norm would be allowed to ‘defend’ himself. How this could be done, with a pending criminal case, is beyond me. I feel strongly that we should let the system work and not interfere. For just one second, let us assume that Norm is innocent and this is a set up. Wouldn’t this set a dangerous precedent? All someone would have to do to remove an elected official would be to make damning, spurious allegations, particularly of a sexual nature.”

In a response to Flory, Benning said expulsion would be appropriate to allow the Senate to continue conducting business. He painted a bleak picture of what things would be like if McAllister returns.

“His presence in the building will be the media circus of the century, and all of us will be under the microscope in how we deal with him. Some of us will detest his presence; some of us will stand by him. Internal polarization will spill over into our relations with each other, which will affect our work,” Benning wrote.

"[Sen. McAllister's] presence in the building will be the media circus of the century, and all of us will be under the microscope in how we deal with him." - Sen. Joe Benning

 Shumlin too said McAllister's resignation is appropriate even without a formal legal verdict.

“I would suggest that it is not jumping the gun [to call for McAllister's resignation]," Shumlin said, "that the allegations are serious, that Senator McAllister should be focusing on the allegations, and that it’s beyond the point where he should be serving as a senator, given the allegations that have been outlined.”

The Senate Republican caucus will meet soon to discuss Benning's potential resolution and determine if it will carry additional sponsors, according to Benning. No date has been set, he said.

For now, Bloomer said he will continue to review options available to the Senate if it chooses to move forward with removing McAllister.

“As the Senate secretary, my job is to give them advice, but just like a regular lawyer, to have it stand up,” he said. “What worries me most as the Senate secretary is finding a process that in the future appears that it was fair to everybody and can be used again in the future if needed.”

Campbell said he is hopeful the Senate can proceed, if needed, in a way that does not further affect the women McAllister is accused of assaulting.

“The story should be about what happened to these victims, not the story of the inner workings of the Senate,” he said. “I just do not want to see the criminal action in this matter delayed, because I don’t think it is fair to the victims.”

This story was originally published by the Vermont Press Bureau and is republished here under a partnership with the bureau.

Bob Kinzel contributed to this report.