Franklin County prosecutor urged to resign over allegations of harassment, 'discriminatory conduct'
Some of the state’s top criminal justice officials are calling for the resignation of Franklin County State’s Attorney John Lavoie after an investigation uncovered allegations of “harassment and discriminatory conduct” by the newly-elected county prosecutor.
John Campbell, commissioner of the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said Tuesday that his department commissioned an internal investigation in March after learning of alleged misconduct by Lavoie.
Private investigators conducted interviews with all 12 employees at Lavoie’s St. Albans City office, according to Campbell, and found that Lavoie had made “dozens and dozens” of discriminatory comments to staff and other individuals, and inappropriately touched people in a “non-sexual” way at least twice.
Campbell said the department’s executive committee, which consists of four other county state’s attorneys, has unanimously called for Lavoie’s resignation.
He added that elected prosecutors should be held to the highest standards of professional conduct.
“Any behavior that goes against these standards is not only unacceptable, but undermines the public trust in our legal system,” Campbell said at a press conference in the Statehouse Tuesday afternoon.
Lavoie stood nearby reporters as Campbell detailed the litany of allegations against him. In an interview with reporters after, Lavoie said he would not heed his colleagues’ calls to resign.
“Absolutely not,” said Lavoie, who was elected as state’s attorney in November. “I’ve instituted changes in my office that I want to see go forward.”
Lavoie acknowledged that he’s prone to “banter, which is I would say often inappropriate.” But he said he wasn’t aware of the extent to which those inappropriate comments affected his employees. Lavoie denied ever having inappropriately touched someone.
Lavoie said he worked as a deputy prosecutor in Franklin County for 20 years before winning election last year.
“I am the same guy that I have been all that time, and I guess I have to apologize for now suddenly being out of step maybe with the times,” he said. “Anyone that I knew about that I offended, I have reached out to directly, and apologized.”
“Over the past several weeks, the Legislature has been examining its role in holding elected officials accountable in situations where misconduct has been found and the integrity of the office is in jeopardy. While we are still working with our legislative counsel to determine the options before us, I am confident that we will have a better understanding of our options in the coming days, including the possibility of impeachment proceedings.”Jill Krowinski, Speaker of the House
Since Lavoie has no plans to resign his office, and the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriff has no authority to institute “corrective actions” against an elected prosecutor, Campbell is now calling on the Vermont Legislature to initiate impeachment proceedings against Lavoie.
“There’s really no oversight to where if they do commit some act of malfeasance, there’s really nothing that we can do,” Campbell said. “There’s nothing that anyone can do short of the Legislature itself moving for impeachment.”
An impeachment resolution would originate in the House. If a majority of House lawmakers vote in favor of impeachment, then the Vermont Senate would function as a jury in an impeachment trial.
House Speaker Jill Krowinski issued a statement Tuesday about Lavoie, saying she was “deeply disturbed by the multiple substantiated allegations of harassment and discriminatory behavior."
Lawmakers have also been considering impeachment proceedings against Franklin County Sheriff John Grismore, who was charged with assault last year after video captured him kicking a handcuffed man in custody.
“Over the past several weeks, the Legislature has been examining its role in holding elected officials accountable in situations where misconduct has been found and the integrity of the office is in jeopardy,” Krowinski said. “While we are still working with our legislative counsel to determine the options before us, I am confident that we will have a better understanding of our options in the coming days, including the possibility of impeachment proceedings.”
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Lavoie questioned the motivations behind the investigation and suggested Tuesday that the allegations are part of a campaign to have him removed from office by employees who were upset that he won the November election.
“I know for a fact that there were some people in my office who were not happy with that event,” he said. “That seems suspicious timing.”
Lavoie said he assumed that his longstanding relationships with office colleagues meant he could use language that wouldn’t be appropriate in other circumstances.
“I’d say if you took my female staff off the street and introduced them to me, and I began talking the way that I often talk, that might be shocking and dismaying,” he said. “But these are not people I met two or three months ago. These are people that I’ve been with for 20 years, some of them.”
Campbell said Lavoie’s discriminatory comments were targeted at “almost every protected class” in Vermont law, and included racist, sexist, homophobic and ableist remarks.
Lavoie said he’s “kind of a lefty” who marched in the Maple Fest Parade recently while pushing a friend’s wheelchair and holding a “gay flag.”
“My best friend in the Franklin County professional community is a man of Indian descent,” Lavoie said.
Campbell said he doesn’t anticipate any disruption in proceedings at the Franklin County State’s Attorney’s office. And he said Attorney General Charity Clark has agreed to provide legal resources to the office if it finds itself in a position where it’s unable to process its caseload.
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