Armstrong quit leadership position

State Rep. Joe Armstrong said Wednesday he quietly resigned his House Democratic Caucus leadership post after being indicted earlier this year, a move that avoids his party colleagues dealing with controversy that has enveloped Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham’s GOP leadership position.

“I knew what I needed to do. I’ve done it and it’s over with,” said Armstrong in a telephone interview. He also questioned whether House Republican leaders were trying to “crucify Durham” and himself for political reasons involving “a Supermajority getting hit with a Super Nova.”

Armstrong said his resignation as House minority leader pro tempore was sent in an email to fellow Democrats in June, shortly after he was indicted on federal tax evasion charges, and in compliance with House Democratic Caucus rules calling for resignation from any leadership position upon indictment.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, had earlier said that Democrats had done “absolutely nothing” in dealing with Armstrong’s legal troubles, a contrast with GOP legislators who have openly confronted Durham’s difficulties — “maybe awkwardly” — by scheduling a House Republican Caucus vote Jan. 12 on whether Durham should be ousted from his position as House majority whip.

“Joe Armstrong did the right thing,” said McCormick Wednesday when told that Armstrong had already resigned from his Democratic caucus leadership post, though that resignation was not made public until now.

Asked if Durham should do the same, McCormick replied, “Rep. Durham needs to make his own decision on that.”

Durham has faced criticism on three fronts after recent media reporting. First, Williamson County authorities disclosed that he was investigated by the TBI for prescription drug fraud, though a grand jury declined to indict him. Then came publicity over Durham writing a letter to a judge urging leniency in sentencing a former youth pastor convicted on child pornography charges.

Next, House Speaker Beth Harwell acknowledged that — in November, before the media reporting — she had arranged for the Legislature’s chief administrator, Connie Ridley, to counsel Durham on “appropriate professional behavior.” Harwell, Ridley, Durham and others have declined to divulge publicly any specifics of what conduct by Durham prompted the counseling session.

“Joe took the high road,” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley.

When initially contacted for a response to McCormick’s remarks on Democrats doing “absolutely nothing” about Armstrong, Fitzhugh said he was confident Armstrong would act appropriately, but doing so was “a matter of timing.”

As it turns out, Armstrong said he had asked Democrats not to mention his resignation — apparently concerned about potential ramifications on his legal situation as he awaits trial, now scheduled to begin Feb. 23, on tax fraud charges. Armstrong says he is innocent of the charges, having relied on the advice of an accountant in filing the questioned returns.

According to the federal court indictment, Armstrong allegedly collaborated with a tobacco wholesaler to buy Tennessee cigarette tax stamps in 2007 before enactment of a tax increase that Armstrong supported. When the tax increase was adopted, the tax stamps were sold a profit of more than $500,000 and Armstrong failed to pay the appropriate federal income tax on that profit, the indictment alleges.

McCormick has filed legislation — inspired by the indictment — that would make such transactions illegal in the future, closing what he describes as a loophole in present law. Armstrong said in the interview that introduction of the bill shows he did nothing illegal under current state law and that he sees the measure as “political posturing” by McCormick.

Armstrong declined to say whether he would vote for McCormick’s bill, but compared purchase and sale of cigarette tax stamps to the trading on commodities and futures markets of “almost anything you can imagine.” McCormick said he hopes Armstrong will ultimately support his proposal, which he views as a reasonable way blocking exploitation of an oversight in current law.

Durham has refused calls for him to resign the leadership post and, according to several Republican legislators, has been actively contacting GOP caucus members to ask their support for retention. Under caucus rules, the first vote toward ousting him — a motion to reconsider the election of Durham in December, 2013 — requires a two-thirds majority, or 49 of the 73 House Republican Caucus members.

The Knoxville legislator said no Democrat ever had asked him to step down from the position of “leader pro tem,” a position created in January of 2015 by the Democratic caucus with the title bestowed upon Armstrong at the same time. Fitzhugh said the post has no official duties, but anticipates Democrats will look to filling it again “in due time.”

Armstrong said many Republicans have contacted him since the indictment to say “they believe in me and are praying for me and my family.” And, insofar as fellow Democrats go, he said that they have been “almost the absolute opposite” of what Durham has faced — support rather than criticism.

“I’m dealing with a tax case … a 2008 tax return,” he said. “I don’t know the particulars of Jeremy Durham’s situation … (but) it seems like a case of (Republican) leadership control.” As in his case, Armstrong said, the Republican leadership approach to Durham seems “just a way of posturing” for political advantage.

“They talk about smaller and less-intrusive government, but they want to control the federal government, they want to control local government, they want to control school boards,” Armstrong said. “Now they’re trying to intrude on people’s lives and what they do outside the Legislature.”

While declining to discuss specifics of his own case, Armstrong depicted himself as a “citizen legislator” no different from Republican legislators engaged in private-life business activities that sometimes involve matters pending before the General Assembly.