Tennessee House expels lawmaker accused in harassment case

Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, addresses the House in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016, from the well of the camber to urge his colleagues not to expel him from the Tennessee General Assembly. The move to expel Durham follows an attorney general's investigation that detailed allegations of improper sexual contact with at least 22 women over the course of his four years in office.

Nashville, Tenn. (Telephost) — The vote to expel a sitting Tennessee lawmaker for the first time in 36 years was overwhelming, even though House members had argued vehemently about whether a series of sexual harassment allegations were enough to boot one of their own.

The state House voted 70-2 on Tuesday to remove Rep. Jeremy Durham. He surprised his colleagues by showing up in the chamber and contending that he shouldn't be ousted. Then he abruptly left in mid-debate.

The vote to remove Durham, who represented the Nashville suburb of Franklin, followed an attorney general's investigation that detailed allegations of improper sexual contact with at least 22 women during his four years in office.

The investigation uncovered allegations that Durham plied a 20-year-old college student with a cooler full of beer and had sex with her in his office in 2014. Another woman interviewed was a lobbyist who nicknamed Durham "Pants Candy" after she said he rummaged in his pocket before suggestively offering her a dirty, unwrapped mint.

House Speaker Beth Harwell effectively quarantined Durham from other lawmakers, staff and lobbyists after preliminary investigation findings were released in April, moving his office across the street and barring him from entering the main legislative area other than for official business. The move came after state Attorney General Herbert Slatery said Durham could pose a risk to "unsuspecting women" at the Capitol complex.

The expulsion vote prevents Durham from qualifying for lifetime pension benefits once he reaches retirement age. He lost his re-election bid in the August primary.

Durham had told colleagues in a letter that he wouldn't attend the proceedings because of concerns that he wouldn't be allowed to mount a defense. Then he showed up anyway, took to the well of the chamber and read a long statement. When questioned by colleagues, he denied most of the allegations.

"This is an expulsion proceeding — the idea that I would have due process right now is ridiculous," Durham said. "If somebody wants to let me confront accusers, let me present my own evidence, that's fine. But this is not the forum to do it."

Durham said he had assembled materials about each incident outlined in the report, but the open floor session wasn't the proper venue to bring them up.

"I assure you, you do not want me releasing some of the things that are in this binder," he said.

Fourteen Republicans abstained from the vote and two voted against it. Many of them agreed with Durham's due-process argument, noting that the lawmaker hadn't been charged with a crime and that alleged victims and witnesses weren't interviewed under oath.

When disagreements grew heated during a Republican caucus meeting before the session, Durham's supporters tried to throw the media out of the meeting. That motion failed.

Durham later abruptly left the chamber, causing an uproar among other lawmakers who wanted to pose more questions. Democrats tried to get Harwell to order Durham to return to the chamber, but the motion was voted down by Republicans.

Democrats have criticized Harwell for not moving sooner or more aggressively to address sexual harassment allegations against Durham.

Several women who spoke to the attorney general for his investigation said they felt unable to say no to Durham because he held a position of power over them. None of them ever filed a formal complaint against him, and many told investigators they felt that doing so would hurt their careers.

An initial call for a special session to expel Durham fell well short of the required 66 House members' signatures last month. They got another chance to address the issue when Republican Gov. Bill Haslam hastily called an unrelated special session to repeal an underage drunken driving law that threatens to cost the state $60 million in federal road money.

The governor, who had joined other GOP leaders in calling on Durham to resign in recent months, praised the House's ouster vote.

Durham's actions have been a major focus of attention all year, beginning with reports that prosecutors had sought fraud charges against him for falsifying prescriptions, only to see the grand jury in his home county decline to indict him.

Durham's colleagues also questioned why he had written a letter on House stationery on behalf of a former pastor who pleaded guilty to child porn possession and statutory rape of a 16-year-old parishioner.
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