Franklin County State’s Attorney John Lavoie is digging in his heels, refusing to heed colleagues’ and lawmakers’ calls to resign after an investigation found that he harassed employees and created a hostile work environment as the county’s top prosecutor.
Left with no other methods to discipline the first-term Democrat and longtime prosecutor, lawmakers are considering the nuclear option: impeachment. But that road is a long and arduous one, and state lawmakers aren’t making any promises.
Just one day after the accusations against Lavoie came to light, House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, told VTDigger in a Wednesday interview that she and other legislative leaders are exploring the option of impeachment.
The mechanism has rarely been used in Vermont state history but is — according to a memo sent to Krowinski from House Clerk BetsyAnn Wrask on Tuesday — “the Sole Method to Remove a Constitutional Officer.” The memo went on to describe the seven-step process of impeachment, which began with a House resolution to form a committee to investigate the allegations.
“At this time, we need more information before we can make a decision about whether or not to move forward with a resolution,” Krowinski said Wednesday.
With the 2023 legislative session ending in a matter of weeks, Krowinski told VTDigger that such a committee, if formed, could work during the summer even while the Legislature is not in session. If the committee were to recommend impeachment, the Legislature would need to reconcile for the House to set forth articles of impeachment and take a vote. The Senate then would oversee an impeachment trial.
Such action could take place during a special session this summer or fall or, according to Krowinski, come January, when the Legislature returns for the 2024 session.
Special sessions must be agreed by the governor. “If I think it’s something that’s needed and necessary, I would probably grant that,” Gov. Phil Scott said at a press conference on Wednesday. “It really is in the hands of the Legislature at this point, whether they move forward,” he added.
But the Republican governor also questioned the probability of such an expedited timeline. He pointed to Franklin County Sheriff John Grismore, who has similarly faced repeated calls to resign after being charged with assault for kicking a shackled man in custody last August.
Numerous lawmakers have mulled over whether to impeach Grismore. And yet, even in the face of criminal charges and a potential law enforcement license suspension, Scott noted that the House has not yet taken that step.
“Impeachment is a very high bar,” Scott said. “When you think about what would prompt an impeachment, usually criminal charges of some sort would prompt an impeachment. But in (Lavoie’s) case, I haven’t seen that there are criminal charges, at least not yet.
“There were a lot of calls — I called — on the sheriff to step down, and there were criminal charges against the sheriff and they haven’t moved forward on an impeachment there,” Scott continued. “So I’m not sure what they’re going to do, but probably the Speaker could answer that.”
Krowinski said Wednesday that, if the House opted to impeach both Lavoie and Grismore, they would proceed with both cases simultaneously.
Indeed, according to Wrask’s memo, Vermont’s constitution states that impeachment proceedings are reserved for “state criminals.”
But, Wrask wrote, the constitution does not define what constitutes a state criminal.
“(B)ecause the General Assembly has the exclusive constitutional authority to impeach and because the Vermont Constitution does not define the term ‘state criminal,’ it also seems possible that a constitutional officer may be impeached for conduct found by the General Assembly to violate the public trust or to undermine the operation of government, even if that conduct is not specifically covered by criminal law,” wrote Wrask.
Rep. Mike McCarthy, D-St. Albans, said in an interview Tuesday afternoon that he supports initiating impeachment proceedings against Grismore and, possibly, Lavoie as well.
The Franklin County lawmaker, who chairs the House Government Operations Committee, said he was concerned that county residents could have a hard time trusting their local law enforcement with both men in office. “We can’t have that kind of behavior from leaders — especially not people who are making decisions about people’s lives.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central, deferred to the House on the impeachment question, saying, “it’s not our call to make” in the state Senate. But he did say that impeachment was “a very serious step.”
According to the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, an investigation found that Lavoie has a pattern of making derogatory comments in the workplace targeting women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color, people with disabilities and people of varying religions. He also allegedly made comments about other people’s “body composition.”
On Tuesday, a coalition of state’s attorneys made the extraordinary move of holding a press conference to publicly pressure Lavoie to resign after he had twice refused to do so.
Lavoie, who attended the press conference himself, doesn’t deny the accusations, but tells reporters afterwards that he doesn’t believe they constitute grounds for stepping down, saying, “I am the same guy that I have been all that time.” When a reporter asked Lavoie if he got too comfortable in the office and felt he could say whatever he wanted, he answered, “Absolutely.”
“It’s disturbing in a number of ways, not the least of which is that, as I understand his defense, he’s saying, ‘Everybody knows I’ve been doing these things for decades,’” Baruth told VTDigger on Wednesday. “I’ve never really heard anybody take that tack to defend themselves against these kinds of accusations — like, ‘Yes, I’ve used this kind of language, I’ve created this kind of atmosphere, and I’ve been doing it for a long time.’ And that’s supposed to be the reason why we should leave him in the position?”
With Lavoie refusing to step down, the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs has called on the House to move forward with impeachment — in part because there are no other options to hold him accountable, according to John Campbell, the department’s executive director.
The situation has reinvigorated Statehouse chatter surrounding Proposal 1, a constitutional amendment that would establish professional oversight and accountability for constitutional officers such as the state’s attorneys and sheriffs. Constitutional amendments took years to pass, but Baruth said Wednesday, “There has to be a lever for us to pull out.”
“You know the old saying: ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely,’” Baruth said. “And in a sense, constitutionally, sheriffs have been empowered kind of absolutely within their fiefdom, and we’re paying a price for that. And I would say the same in (Lavoie’s) case: We’re paying the price for not having what seems to be a commonsense lever to pull if somebody is abusing the privileges of their office.”
Shaun Robinson contributed reporting.
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