Durham rejects exit from GOP leadership post

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Embattled state Rep. Jeremy Durham said Wednesday that he won’t resign as House majority whip amid worries among top Republicans that his ongoing leadership role could hurt campaign fundraising efforts.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada confirmed that he had discussed “options” with Durham following revelations that he had been at the center of a drug task force investigation and had written a letter on behalf of a former youth pastor convicted of child porn possession.

Casada said he didn’t directly ask Durham to resign as House majority whip, but declined to elaborate on what he deemed a confidential conversation.

“I simply discussed all the options available to him,” Casada said.

Spokesman Cade Cothren said in a statement that Casada “never asked Rep. Durham to resign his whip position, though the option of doing so along with dozens of other options and outcomes were discussed.”

Casada had initially declined to comment about the conversation with Durham after The Associated Press learned from a legislative official with knowledge of the situation that House Republicans were getting worried that Durham’s ongoing leadership role was making campaign donors skittish.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the private conversations.

As whip, Durham heads a committee of lawmakers responsible for managing the re-election bids of Republican incumbents. All House seats are up for election in November.

Durham denied that he had been asked to resign as whip, and said that he plans to remain in his leadership position.

While most GOP leaders have distanced themselves from Durham in recent days, Casada had been one of the few voices to support his fellow Williamson County representative.

Over the weekend, Durham became the target of anonymous robocalls demanding his resignation. The calls followed the public release of investigative documents revealing that prosecutors had sought charges against Durham on allegations that he changed the dates on two prescriptions. A grand jury declined to indict the lawmaker in January.

Three months later, Durham wrote to urge a federal judge to consider child porn defendant Joseph Todd Neill’s entire life, and not just the “ill-conceived act” he had pleaded guilty to.

The images had been found on Neill’s phone in an investigation into a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old congregant at North Fork Baptist Church in Shelbyville. Neill was sentenced to more than three years in the federal child porn case, and later pleaded guilty in state court to statutory rape by an authority figure.

Durham said last week that his letter “in no way condoned his illegal actions and clearly stated that he deserved to be punished for those acts.”

“I simply stated facts regarding his prior life serving others as a Christian missionary.”

Several legislative Republicans nevertheless questioned the decision to write the letter, including Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who said it had shown “poor judgment.”

The Tennessean newspaper reported that Ramsey’s comments drew a rebuke from Circuit Court Judge Michael W. Binkley in Durham’s home county. In a Facebook post, Binkley remarked that Ramsey was “dumb as a rock.”

“As far as Mr. Brilliant criticizing Jeremy who had the moral courage to help a friend in a difficult time in his life, all I can say is I admire a man with guts,” Binkley wrote. “Not many of those kind of men around any more.”

A Ramsey spokesman said the lawmaker stands by his statements.

Binkley and his wife each gave Durham’s campaign $1,400 in 2012. He did not respond to the newspaper’s requests for comment.

The judge’s Facebook post had been deleted by Tuesday afternoon.