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VOL. 40 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 22, 2016

Leaving Durham to voters rewards the disgraced legislator with pension

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The Tennessee attorney general’s sexual harassment investigation of Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham dragged halfway through the summer. Now we know why.

They had to interview just about every woman on Capitol Hill as a result of Durham’s alleged sexual “fishing” expeditions.

It seems hardly any woman at Legislative Plaza could escape the clutches of Durham. The AG’s report shows he hit on more than 20 interns, assistants and lobbyists, hugging and kissing and having sex with one underage college girl, enticing her with his office “mini-fridge” full of mixers and beer. About the only one exempt was old “butter face,” as he is said to have referred to one woman.

Investigators had to question roughly 70 people during the five-month investigation, spending a massive amount of time, money and state resources for a House member who, according to the report, spent more time trying to get laid than working on legislation. He even sent lobbyists questionable texts in the midst of committee meetings, the report states.

If this were a college fraternity party, Durham might be a hero. But the Tennessee General Assembly, where momentous decisions are made every day, dealing with everything from toilets and therapy to Muslim “no-go zones” and the Holy Bible, it’s just a tad more serious.

And while Durham isn’t the first politician to harass an intern or cheat on his wife – Bill Clinton and several others in the General Assembly come to mind – not only did he chase skirts all over Nashville, he tried to circumvent the legislative process, affecting not only those he allegedly tried to seduce, but all Tennesseans. In doing so, he put the supermajority Republicans on the spot, mainly House Speaker Beth Harwell.

And, finally, they did something about it – or at least tried to make it look like they were taking action, saying he should be suspended but declining to seek a special session and a two-thirds House vote.

The ad hoc committee appointed to determine whether Durham should be suspended by the House ultimately decided to let Williamson County voters in District 65 figure it out.

But Democrats are pointing out Durham could be eligible for a state pension if he's allowed to stay in office until November, giving him four years as a state representative. In that case, the amount of money Tennesseans will pay him monthly for the rest of his life will surpass the cost of a special session. 

"Why should we force Tennesseans, including many victims identified by the attorney general, to foot the bill for a pension for Rep. Durham's bad behavior?" Stewart says.

Stewart is right, and failure to call a special session would be a disservice to Tennesseans. Speaker Harwell needs to make the call.

Committee Chairman Steve McDaniel said he didn’t think House members would come back to Nashville for a special session.

And though Durham suspended his House re-election campaign the next day, some damage was already done.

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini blamed Republicans for lack of leadership in letting the problem fester for more than a year and “spiral out of control.”

Republican leaders heard talk and received reports about Durham and harassment a year ago, and the report said it started in 2013, just after he came to the Legislature as a freshman.

What good would a special session do?

“It would expose Jeremy Durham for what he is, which is a serial sexual harasser, and we know that now. The problem is they knew about this in 2015 and did nothing about it. So they’ve created this problem, and they’ve gotta fix it now, no matter what happens,” Mancini says.

Democratic state Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville called it “disappointing” that the committee failed to come up with some sort of punishment for Durham’s behavior. Shortly before the panel voted 3-1 to let voters decide Durham’s fate, Jones said, “The whole thing sucks.”

It did.

Ad hoc committee member Billy Spivey, who refused to sign the report and didn’t attend a press conference afterward with Harwell, opposed making it open to the public because it might identify some of the victims, even though their names were redacted.

Spivey had been saying for some time he didn’t know why the committee was meeting because it couldn’t “execute” an expulsion without the 109th General Assembly in session.

“And then we generate a report that says we’re not going to recommend anything to anybody,” he says.

Ultimate impact

But the AG’s investigative report was pretty rough.

It showed someone whose main goal was having sex with someone other than his wife, apparently the most forgiving woman in the world next to Hillary Clinton, and using his former leadership position as Republican Caucus whip to try to have his way with women, most of whom were afraid to come forward because they didn’t want to be seen as troublemakers or, if they were lobbyists, didn’t want to damage legislative efforts.

Late-night texting, begging for hugs, squeezing women and moaning and the list goes on.

Durham reportedly told one woman who questioned his sexual advances, “Welcome to Capitol Hill.”

Some who wriggled out of his grasp said they were so torn up by encounters with Durham they got out of politics altogether.

If only he’d shown some imagination this might be excusable. Most of his texts to women – whose cell-phone numbers he got under the guise of legislative work – were something like: “What’s up,” “What about you,” “Where are you,” “Let’s have drinks.”

Nothing pithy such as, “My mini-fridge holds more beer” or “I’ve got the biggest mini-fridge in the House” or “What’s a nice underage girl like you doing in a crappy place like this?” or “Your lobby or mine?” (for lobbyists, or course) or “If you won’t meet me I’ll have to settle for butter face.”

Durham

Anyway, after the AG’s report hit the fan, Durham suspended his re-election campaign but still couldn’t quite figure out why he was being hounded from office. His attorney also continued to question the AG’s investigation and the House process, even though Attorney General Herb Slatery contends the House has the authority to police itself.

“The great majority of the anonymous allegations in the AG report are either completely false or taken completely out of context,” Durham said while delivering a statement at his attorney’s office. “But there are a handful of interactions in there that are true.”

“And while my best intentions may have been harmless, there were times where my communication was less than professional, and that is something for which I accept full responsibility and for which I apologize.”

This is proof that some people just don’t know when to shut up.

The comments drew a sharp rebuke from Harwell, who said he should make it clear he is not running for re-election.

“I can’t stand stuff like this,” says Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, one of several Republican leaders who called for Durham to resign in early 2016.

“It does give politics a bad name, no doubt about that. I do think this is an outlier, and when somebody like a Jeremy Durham says ‘Welcome to Capitol Hill,’ it makes you want to smack him in the mouth, because that’s not the way it is. It really isn’t.”

When Ramsey, who engineered Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate, says a fellow Republican needs to be smacked in the mouth, they probably need it – or worse.

He also says Durham’s decision to suspend his campaign but not to resign from the Legislature “is an affront to the women of this state and the taxpayers who pay his salary.”

Ramsey acknowledges the matter shouldn’t have come to this point, but he contends it does have a silver lining through a new sexual harassment policy he and Harwell adopted. It’s designed to create transparency and encourage people to come forward if they’re harassed.

Based on the AG’s report, though, the Legislature has work to do, even though Ramsey and Harwell say harassment is mainly isolated to Durham’s case.

For instance, a male lobbyist “expressed his view during an interview that enduring a legislator’s sexual advances is merely part of a female lobbyist’s job.”

In fact, lobbyists, legislators, interns and staffers knew about Durham in 2013, and one lawmaker advised a lobbyist who had a run-in with Durham “she should just keep quiet so people would not talk about her after she worked so hard to get her job.”

Final analysis

Was this an exercise in futility? The question draws different responses from different people.

Spivey and a number of legislators who felt Durham was railroaded – Rep. Rick Womick, for example, continued to challenge the public release of the AG’s report until the last minute – thought it was a political vendetta, miscarriage of justice or threat to the victims.

Rep. Jones initially said it bordered on a waste of time since the committee handed out no punishment.

Harwell, however, said it was “absolutely not” futile.

“This may be one of the few times in his life he has been held accountable. This will be made public,” she said.

In case anyone forgot, Durham found his way out of incidents such as a 2003 burglary arrest in Knoxville while attending UT-Knoxville and drug task force allegations of prescription fraud.

Charges were dropped in connection with the break-in, which had to do with a former girlfriend and her new boyfriend.

And Durham persuaded a Williamson County grand jury not to indict him a couple of years ago for allegedly altering prescription dates, according to Associated Press reports.

He also wrote a character letter for a former youth minister convicted of statutory rape.

The Republican Caucus considered dropping him as whip when those were his only problems, until The Tennessean published claims by three anonymous women that he harassed them.

Consequently, Durham spent much of the past eight months blaming the “liberal media” for his plight.

But Ramsey, Harwell and Gov. Bill Haslam are hardly the liberal media, and even though he had backing from some of the House’s far right wing, he lost traction rapidly and still can’t accept full responsibility despite suspending his campaign, which he could revive since he remains on the primary ballot.

Meanwhile, the state is auditing Durham to see if he misspent campaign funds.

And Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell of Nashville is filing a bill to repeal the so-called “Jeremy’s law,” which is supposed to curb frivolous lawsuits against state employees but also could discourage sexual abuse claims.

Mitchell notes the AG’s report shows one woman who met Durham for drinks at the Tin Roof was “retaliated against by an unjust firing and a refusal to rehire her.”

The state representative for whom she worked had her employment terminated after finding out about her rendezvous with Durham, the report states.

Under the new law, if she took legal action she would face the prospect of having to pay attorney’s fees and court costs if she lost.

In addition, the lawmaker wants the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to investigate her situation to see if any laws were broken in the woman’s firing.

He has filed a request with Director Mark Gwyn.

“That’s sad,” Mitchell says. “There needs to be a price paid for inaction of leadership for not doing something for three years.”

Luckily for Tennessee, Durham will get only a few thousand more dollars from the state before he leaves office.

Even though Mancini is howling for Durham’s suspension, is it worth the expense? Each day in session for the House and Senate costs $25,000 in per diem and travel, according to the Office of Legislative Administration. One must ask: “Is Jeremy Durham worth another $25,000?”

Considering he already cost taxpayers thousands of dollars for the attorney general’s investigation, meetings, paperwork, etc., with his campaign suspended, Tennessee doesn’t need to put much more money into this guy.

Still, with Mitchell making his requests, the battle continues, and no matter how much Republicans try to downplay the Durham Debacle, it could haunt them for a long time, which is what happens when you close your ears and eyes and try to pretend you don’t see what’s going on right under your nose.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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