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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Lawmaker's Arrest On Sex Charges Casts Pall Over Statehouse

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Angela Evancie
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VPR File
Colleagues of Franklin Sen. Norm McAllister tried to make sense Friday of the arrest of one of their own Thursday evening. McAllister has pleaded not guilty to felony counts of sexual assault and prohibited acts.

Lawmakers are reacting to the arrest of one of their own Thursday evening with a mix of shock and sadness.

As Franklin Sen. Norm McAllister pleaded not guilty this morning to felony counts of sexual assault and prohibited acts, his colleagues tried to make sense of a bizarre episode that saw the second-term Republican arrested outside the Statehouse during a break in a floor debate.

Audio from this story will be posted at approximately 11 a.m. on Monday, May 11.

“I mean, everything seemed to be normal, to me anyways. He didn’t show like anything serious was going on. And then we had that break … and he didn’t come back,” Essex/Orleans Sen. Bobby Starr said Friday. “Well, I didn’t know what happened to Norm. And then later on I finally found out that somebody came and got him.”

That “somebody,” in fact, were plainclothes state police detectives acting on behalf of investigators who say that McAllister coerced women into having sex with him in exchange for rent in buildings he owns.

Gov. Peter Shumlin said Friday that he got advance notice Tuesday evening that charges against McAllister would be forthcoming. Shumlin said he wasn’t told precisely what McAllister had been accused of, and that the charges came as a shock.

“Well obviously the allegations are extremely troubling, and we’ll have to see how it goes forward. But I’m both concerned and troubled by it, as I’m sure most Vermonters are,” Shumlin said.

"Obviously the allegations are extremely troubling, and we'll have to see how it goes forward. But I'm both concerned and troubled by it, as I'm sure most Vermonters are." - Gov. Peter Shumlin

McAllister has been a Statehouse fixture since 2003, when he entered the Legislature as a House representative from Highgate. The dairy farmer ran successfully for the Senate in 2012, and sits on the Senate committees on agriculture and institutions.

“You know, it’s like a state of shock, basically,” Rutland Sen. Kevin Mullin said of the developments. “No one knew what to do or anything … I would call it just a form of a daze that overtook most of us who knew him well, because it’s just so hard to believe anything like this could be true.”

Caledonia Sen. Joe Benning rushed outside to serve as McAllister’s ad hoc defense attorney when he learned his colleague was being arrested Thursday evening. Benning said McAllister deserves a presumption of innocence, and that he’ll wait until lawyers have a chance to vet fully the charges against him “before I even want to come close to making some kind of a judgment about what’s going on here.”

“Everybody in the building is sad,” Benning said. “I mean, this is a colleague of ours. And you have to, in my opinion, withhold judgment until you know what the facts are on the ground.”

"I would call it just a form of a daze that overtook most of us who knew him well, because it’s just so hard to believe anything like this could be true." - Sen. Kevin Mullin

Many lawmakers recalled their time with McAllister fondly, including House Speaker Shap Smith, who came into the Legislature the same year as him.

“It just was hard to hear it about someone who I’ve known for a really long time,” Smith said. “Although our political views are very different, we’ve always had a good working relationship, and I considered him a friend, and I was really troubled by what I heard.”

Smith said the charges didn’t jive with the McAllister he knows, but said “sometimes people are different in private than they are in public.”

McAllister isn’t universally loved. Former Burlington Rep. Rachel Weston, who now lives in Istanbul, posted a Facebook message in the wake of the arrest recalling an alleged run-in with McAllister on her first day in the Legislature.

"A woman can recount sometimes in her life or her career where some sort of perverted or predatory comment from a man comes her way. And in my circumstance, this is what was said to me on my first day in the Legislature by Norm McAllister." - Former Burlington Rep. Rachel Weston

Reached by phone overseas, Weston said that upon introducing herself to McAllister in 2007, he said “it’s nice to meet you, but it would have been better to meet you with your clothes off.”

McAllister was 55 at the time; Weston 25.

“I was shocked and horrified and disgusted and let it be known then and there,” Weston said Friday. “A woman can recount sometimes in her life or her career where some sort of perverted or predatory comment from a man comes her way. And in my circumstance, this is what was said to me on my first day in the Legislature by Norm McAllister … It was highly inappropriate and predatory, and if that comment shows a history or predatory behavior, so be it.”

Senate President John Campbell used a written statement Friday afternoon saying his “concern lies with any victims of the alleged conduct.”

"The place for judgment is in the court system. And I have confidence that our justice system will provide an appropriate response to any proven wrongdoing." - Senate President John Campbell

“At this time it is premature to make further comment as the public has not been provided with all the facts,” Campbell said. “The place for judgment is in the court system, and I have confidence that our justice system will provide an appropriate response to any proven wrongdoing.”

The arrest comes as lawmakers gear up for an intense final week of the session in which they’ll have to negotiate complex deals over taxes, the budget, health care and other policy arenas. Sen. Dick Sears said the episode is definitely a distraction.

“I spent a lot of sleepless hours last night, thinking about Norm, thinking about the laws we’ve written, and how it will impact this person who probably voted for many of them,” Sears said.

But Sears said the work will proceed undeterred. Smith said he’s confident the Legislature will adjourn by its target date of next Friday.

"I spent a lot of sleepless hours last night, thinking about Norm, thinking about the laws we've written, and how it will impact this person who probably voted for many of them." - Sen. Dick Sears

“One of our colleagues is in serious trouble right now, of course it has an impact. But I think we’ll move forward,” Sears said. “We’re a close knit kind of family there, so we work together. And we’ll all plod on.”

Asked whether he thinks McAllister should resign his seat, Shumlin said it’s not his call to make.

“I’m not going to speculate on that,” Shumlin said. “I’d leave that decision to Sen. McAllister.”

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