Scandal in the Vermont legislature, Part 2

Senator Norman McAllister has been suspended from the Vermont Senate.  The vote, which was not on party lines, was 20 to 10. My Senators split, one for and one against.

Vermont Public Radio reported

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

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.”

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.”

Those opposed to suspension argued that there were no rules in the Senate to cover the situation and that the Senate should let the criminal justice system work.

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.

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.

In the end, the arguments for suspension won out.

Back in December, after the rules committee had voted to recommend suspension, one of McAllister’s constituents, Sue Prent, wrote:

Mr. McAllister says he thinks his constituents will sue the Senate on his behalf, for being deprived of representation.

Is he kidding us? Any and all of his constituents with whom I am familiar (of every political stripe) wanted him gone as soon as the content of his confessional conversations with the victims became known.

A more likely scenario is that some of those same constituents, fed up with Mr. McAllister’s refusal to accept responsibility for his appetites and voluntarily step down from the Senate, will be motivated to sue Mr. McAllister for depriving them of legitimate representation in the face of conclusive evidence that he, at the very least, has grossly violated community standards.

After putting his colleagues and voters though the ordeal of deciding to suspend him (even the other Senator from Franklin County voted yes), McAllister has said he is thinking of resigning so a replacement can be appointed.

Unfortunately, the sad story of Vermont State Senator Norman McAllister is far from over.




Scandal in the Vermont legislature

The Vermont legislature opened yesterday.  There are many pressing issues:  school reform, how to pay for expanded Medicaid, the drug epidemic, and legalizing marijuana.  But overriding everything is what to do about Senator Norman McAllister.

McAllister is accused of raping an intern last session and of a long duration “rent for sex” scheme.  It is alleged that he let women maintain housing and jobs on his farm in Franklin County in exchange for sex.  All of this came to light as the session was ending last year.  The Burlington Free Press reported the story last May.

Prosecutors allege Sen. Norman H. McAllister, R-Franklin, over a period of several years sexually assaulted two women who were his tenants and employees, and that he attempted to solicit a third woman. That woman called police this week, launching a fast-moving investigation that by Friday was reverberating throughout the state capital of Montpelier.

The allegations, explained in sometimes graphic detail in court papers, shocked the governor and McAllister’s Statehouse colleagues, several of whom witnessed his arrest outside the Capitol on Thursday evening.

At that point, I think everyone was prepared for him to resign.  The Governor, a Democrat, would appoint his replacement.  I should say here that relations between the Democrats, Republicans, and Progressives here are not as divided and acrimonious as they are nationally probably because we are a small state and civility is important if any governing is to happen.  The Governor might even have appointed a Republican.

Sen. Norman McAllister, R-Franklin, returns to his seat in the Senate on the opening day of the Legislature.

Sen. Norman McAllister, R-Franklin, returns to his seat in the Senate on the opening day of the Legislature.

But Senator McAllister has not resigned.  The Legislative rules have nothing to cover this kind of situation.  Over the summer, there was some talk of expulsion, but the rules committee recommended suspension instead.  McAllister, denying the allegations, is fighting the suspension.  He says he is innocent and the criminal trial will prove it.  The trial is scheduled to begin in February.  That means he is going to miss part of the session in any case.

This is where I am of two minds.  He has been duly elected and I’ve read and heard nothing about any move from his constituents to recall him.  A suspension would leave them short one Senator to represent Franklin County.  (There are only 30 senators, statewide.)  On the other hand, if any other public employee were accused of these crimes, they would have been suspended back last May.  No police officer, firefighter, social worker, or RMV worker would be on the job today.  I think a lot of his fellow legislators are facing the same quandary.  The eight of the nine Senate Republicans caucused yesterday.  McAllister defended himself and they came to no conclusion except to urge him to resign.

Is an elected legislator a public employee?  In some sense, yes.  They are paid with taxpayer money.  On the other hand, they are “hired” by election.  Neither of my state senators have commented on the situation nor has my representative.  If I had to vote this afternoon, I’m not sure what I would do so I haven’t talked to any of them.  All three are women and I wonder if they, like me, have difficulty separating the alleged crime from what action to take.  Would it be easier if McAllister had embezzled money or falsified his tax returns?

Part 2 of this story, after the vote.

Photograph:  Roger Crowley/VTDigger