Addison County's sheriff refuses to resign after sexual assault charges. It's unlikely he'll be forced to step down
On May 1, a video recorded by Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton appeared on YouTube. Newton is sitting in a car, wearing a black cap and looking directly into the camera.
“Hi, Sheriff Newton here,” he began. “Bear with me through this — it’s going to be a few minutes, but I got a lot I want to say.”
Over the next 20 minutes, Newton’s soliloquy wanders, jumping from detailing his mental health struggles to publicly accusing people of attempting to discredit his reputation.
“There is a group of people who are working together to ruin my name, and I’m going to name them all tonight,” he said.
A few days earlier, VTDigger reported that state police were investigating a domestic disturbance that had taken place at Newton’s Middlebury home in February.
Newton, in the video, said he planned to retire as sheriff at the end of his term in February 2023, but not because he was under investigation for alleged domestic abuse. He said he would leave office in a year, in part, because of his struggles with anxiety and post-traumatic stress. At one point during his first year as sheriff, Newton said he’d made a plan to kill himself.
“I’m worn out, I’m tired,” he said. “Just the sound of sirens triggers my anxiety.”
The video was eventually taken down, but not before it caught the attention of one of his deputies, who reached out to Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling.
“I firmly believe that if he isn’t removed from office immediately and doesn’t get the help that he greatly needs, there will be dire and tragic consequences for the community,” the deputy wrote to Schirling, according to court documents.
Members of the state police and the Attorney General’s Office gathered to determine what steps could be taken, Schirling said.
The deputy’s email wasn’t the only red flag. State police were already investigating Newton for potential domestic and sexual assault charges, according to court records. When they become the focus of criminal investigations, members of state and local police are typically placed on administrative leave or suspended. But some of Vermont’s top legal officials determined that, in this case, there was nothing they could do to Newton.
“The options based on what we were presented with during this particular event were fairly limited,” Schirling said in a recent interview. “We did not come up with an option for an administrative action that was possible, short of an impeachment proceeding that would be done by the state Legislature.”
"We did not come up with an option for an administrative action that was possible, short of an impeachment proceeding that would be done by the state Legislature."Michael Schirling, former Department of Public Safety Commissioner
Impeachment is the only mechanism for removing a sheriff, an elected position, from office. Only one Vermont sheriff has been impeached: Washington County Sheriff Mike Mayo, who in 1976, was accused of assault, falsifying documents and abusing his authority. Mayo was ultimately acquitted.
The situation temporarily resolved itself, Schirling said. Newton voluntarily stepped back from some of his duties shortly after posting the video.
“We got a bit lucky,” Schirling said.
But in the meantime, the criminal investigation against Newton progressed. Nearly three weeks ago, state police arrested the sheriff on charges that he sexually and physically abused a woman. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which include two felony sexual assault charges.
Newton did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite facing charges that could land him in prison for life, Newton has refused to resign.
“I’m still the sheriff,” Newton said as he left the arraignment, according to VTDigger.
And it appears unlikely that Newton will be forced to leave office before his term expires in January 2023. The Legislature, which typically runs from January to May, would need to be in session to start impeachment proceedings, and only the governor can call a special session. But Gov. Phil Scott isn’t planning to call a special session, a spokesperson said, though the governor and other political leaders have called on Newton to step down.
“I don’t think he can lead in the situation he’s in, and it would be the right thing to do for the people of Addison County,” Scott told reporters recently.
In a letter shortly after Newton’s arrest, all the Democratic state legislators in Addison County urged Newton to resign. The delegation noted that many of them had supported Newton, a Democrat, during his 2018 campaign. But in light of the charges, they wrote, Newton is “no longer fit for office.”
“It's a real problem, and I'm just so disappointed that Peter Newton does not seem to understand this and won't do the right thing,” said Robin Scheu, an Addison County state representative, in an interview.
"It's a real problem, and I'm just so disappointed that Peter Newton does not seem to understand this and won't do the right thing."Robin Scheu, Addison County state representative
The Republican Party in Addison County has not called for Newton’s resignation. Tom Hughes, the chair of the county committee, said the group hasn’t discussed the issue.
When asked if he thought Newton staying on as sheriff hurt the department’s credibility, Hugh said he didn’t have an opinion.
“I haven’t been thinking about it,” he said. “I saw it in the news, but I haven’t been focused on that.”
Sheriffs occupy an unusual space in Vermont’s law enforcement landscape. They’re county-wide, elected officials — effectively, they have no boss, save the voters. But their departments typically play a subordinate role in Vermont law enforcement. Sheriff’s departments, in statute, are tasked with transporting incarcerated people, and delivering court summons. Sometimes, they sign contracts to provide additional services for towns that don’t have their own police department.
Sheriffs are allowed to keep up to 5% of every contract they bring to the department in addition to their baseline salary, which is paid by the state. This month, the baseline sheriff salary increased from $86,116 to $94,085.
While Newton has refused to leave office, his ability to perform the job has been curtailed by court-order conditions of release stemming from his criminal charges. At Newton’s arraignment, a judge barred him possessing a firearm or participating in any law enforcement activity. He's still allowed to perform administrative duties.
Even before facing criminal charges, Newton had largely stepped back from his sheriff duties. Shortly after Newton posted the video in May, Sgt. Mike Elmore, a deputy at the Addison County Sheriff’s Department, took over most department operations, including scheduling deputies, authorizing contracts and signing checks.
“I was put in charge of just running the day-to-day operations,” Elmore said in an interview. “So once he got arrested, it didn't really necessarily change the way the department was being run, since we'd already kind of switched over at that point.”
Elmore declined to comment when asked if Newton should resign. But he wants the job permanently. He’s running in the Aug. 9 Republican primary for sheriff against Ron Holmes, a former deputy sheriff and high bailiff.
Newton is not the only Vermont sheriff whose recent actions have raised questions about potential gaps in oversight. VTDigger reported in February that Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt might not be living full-time in Vermont.
There have been similar problems with another county-wide elected position: assistant judges, who in recent years have faced discipline for ordering the arrest of debtors and giving themselves bonuses.
But misconduct by sheriffs, given their sweeping law enforcement powers, tends to provoke more concern. Some say that the Legislature should add new accountability measures for sheriffs.
One problem, according to Lia Ernst, the legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, is that state law doesn’t require sheriffs to be certified law enforcement officers.
“That's sort of a glaring hole that all other law enforcement officers and deputy sheriffs are all subject to, that sheriff's themselves are not,” Ernst said.
Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault, who’s prosecuting Newton, thinks the commissioner of the Department Public Safety or the governor should have the ability to temporarily suspend sheriffs who face criminal charges.
“I think that's really integral to confidence in the public system, '' said Thibault, who’s currently running in the Democratic primary for attorney general. “This criminal case will take months to resolve. So we're not going to have a quick answer.”