MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate Rules Committee voted Wednesday to recommend suspension of Sen. Norm McAllister, who reiterated that he is innocent of criminal sex charges he is facing.
The committee's vote was 3-2. The majority said it wanted to protect the integrity of the institution, while the dissenters said they wanted to wait for the outcome of McAllister's trial before taking any action.
The full Senate is now expected to debate suspending the 64-year-old Franklin County Republican on Jan. 6, the second day of its 2016 session.
The committee's vote followed its 4-1 rejection of an alternative proposal by Sen. Margaret Flory, R-Rutland, that would have barred the Senate from taking action against any member who is criminally charged until after the completion of the court case.
McAllister told the committee and repeated to reporters afterward that constituents have spoken to him about suing over being denied Senate representation by him if he is barred from serving. Asked if he might join the lawsuit or file one of his own, McAllister said, "I'm not going to let them walk over me."
McAllister was arrested outside the Statehouse on May 7 and charged with three felony and three misdemeanor counts; he has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors say he sexually assaulted two women who were his tenants and employees on his Highgate dairy farm and solicited another for sex. One of his accusers worked for him for a time at the Statehouse as his intern.
Members of the Rules Committee took pains to say they did not want their or the full Senate's deliberations to influence the outcome of a criminal trial scheduled for this winter in the Vermont Superior Court in St. Albans.
But Sen. Philip Baruth, the Senate majority leader and the Rules Committee member who proposed the suspension resolution, likened the situation to a teacher or police officer who is suspended while an alleged crime or abuse of power is resolved.
"If there's a question, a substantial question, a felony question, about whether that power has been abused, and abused with someone in the role of a Statehouse intern, I believe absolutely the course of action is to suspend that person pending the outcome," he said.
Flory, who has been McAllister's staunchest Senate defender since his arrest, tried to persuade fellow committee members that they should honor the principle of innocent until proven guilty, and said they would be denying McAllister's constituents one of their two voices in the Senate if he were barred from serving even temporarily.
While proclaiming his innocence — "I have not done what I've been accused of," McAllister said — he also complained of being treated unfairly.
"To have this happening at this level by my colleagues is quite disturbing," he said. "... I understand you feel you have to do something, but I feel like, well, you've got somebody down on his knees, kick 'em in the head. That's the way I look at this decision."