Vt. lawmakers are a step closer to impeaching Franklin County officials. Here's how it would work
Vermont lawmakers today took a step towards impeaching Franklin County law enforcement officials.
The House Committee on Government Operations and Military Affairs voted in favor of a resolution to create a special committee. The group would investigate the allegations of misconduct against State's Attorney John Lavoie and Sheriff John Grismore.
The measure still needs approval from the full House.
Vermont Public’s Jenn Jarecki spoke with reporter Liam Elder-Connors. Their conversation below has been edited for clarity.
Jenn Jarecki: So Liam, the House is taking steps to form a committee to investigate Lavoie and Grismore. How does this group's work fit into the impeachment process?
Liam Elder-Connors: The special committee would be a seven-member bipartisan group, and the members would be appointed by the Speaker of the House. And essentially the group would be looking and trying to determine if there are grounds to impeach Lavoie and Grismore.
These would be separate investigations of the individuals’ alleged conduct. And the special committee would have subpoena power, they'd be able to hire investigators and ultimately, they would be recommending articles of impeachment if they thought there was evidence to warrant that.
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Before we go any further talking about the process. Liam, can you remind us why the Legislature is considering impeaching both of these officials to begin with?
Sure. So John Grismore, who's currently the sheriff, was caught on video last August kicking a handcuffed and shackled man. He was a captain in the Franklin County Sheriff's Department at the time, and he was fired. He ultimately was charged with simple assault. He's pleaded not guilty to that criminal charge, and he's maintained that he didn't do anything wrong.
He still won the sheriff's election in November. And there's also actually a second investigation going on: the state police are looking into financial improprieties at the sheriff's office. And a spokesperson for the state police told me today that that investigation is still ongoing.
Meanwhile John Lavoie, the state's attorney, has been accused of making numerous derogatory comments about race, sexual orientation, people with disabilities and people's body types. That's all according to an internal investigation that was ordered by the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs. The report also documented instances where Lavoie made inappropriate physical contact with employees, including one instance where he pinched an employee's midsection and allegedly told her, “I don't think you need to eat lunch today.”
Now according to the internal report, Lavoie denied that incident. But he has admitted to making some of the other comments. He told me in a phone interview last week that he thought the comments he was making were humorous banter.
Lavoie has rejected calls from fellow prosecutors to resign and Grismore has also said he's not going to leave office. So impeachment is really the only mechanism to remove elected officials from office. And since both Lavoie and Grismore were independently elected, it's the only way they could be forced to leave office.
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So what does the investigation committee need to prove, then, in order to impeach Lavoie and separately, Grismore?
The Vermont Constitution says that the House of Representatives can impeach “state criminals.” Now, the Vermont Constitution does not define what a state criminal is. And a memo from the clerk of the House last week said that it could be a broad range of actions, from things that are actually against the law to conduct that just violates the public's trust, even if that conduct isn't prohibited by state law.
So Franklin County Rep. Michael McCarthy, who's the Chair of the House Government Operations and Military Affairs Committee, said that just because they're forming this investigatory committee doesn't mean that impeachment is a foregone conclusion.
“Impeachment is a very rare and serious thing,” McCarthy said. “And I think those standards that we'll have to hit, in terms of developing a record and evidence and testimony to warrant articles being adopted, is going to be pretty high.”
“Impeachment is a very rare and serious thing. And I think those standards that we'll have to hit, in terms of developing a record and evidence and testimony to warrant articles being adopted, is going to be pretty high.”Franklin County Rep. Michael McCarthy, House Government Operations and Military Affairs Committee Chair
Now, it's also worth noting that impeachment is not a criminal process: a conviction would only remove the person from office. Though the Vermont Constitution says if a person's impeached, they could still be subject to criminal indictment and prosecution in the court system as well.
OK. So Liam, if the House forms a special committee to investigate these allegations, and if that group does decide to draft articles of impeachment, what would happen next?
Two-thirds of the House of Representatives would need to vote for those articles of impeachment in order to impeach an individual. Then the Speaker of the House would appoint three members of the House to serve as the impeachment managers. Essentially, they would act as prosecutors during the impeachment trial, which would happen in the Senate.
That trial would play out largely like any courtroom trial: the House managers would make the case for impeachment, and then the person who's been impeached could provide defense of their conduct. They could cross-examine witnesses, really very similar to a courtroom. Then the Senate would vote, and it would take two-thirds of the Senate voting to convict a person and remove them from office.
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Well, this year's legislative session seems pretty close to wrapping up, Liam. I'm curious, is there any timeline for the impeachment process?
No, there's not a specific timeline. House Speaker Jill Krowinski said last week she wants to make sure that the investigation is thorough and that the committee has all the time it needs. The special committee would likely do some of that investigation during the summer when the Legislature is not in session. That's something that's included in the resolution that creates the committee.
There's also a question about whether or not a special session would be needed if the House needs to vote on articles of impeachment. A lot of the details on how that would work haven't been worked out yet, but will likely be addressed in a later resolution. So more details to come about that process eventually.
But you know, we don't have a ton of precedent when it comes to impeachments in Vermont. The last one was nearly 50 years ago, Washington County Sheriff Mike Mayo was impeached and ultimately acquitted. And then the last time there was an impeachment and a conviction, that doesn't appear to have happened since 1785. So quite a while since anything like this has happened.
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