House Republicans back Durham as majority whip

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE — Tennessee Rep. Jeremy Durham survived an effort to oust him from his leadership role among state House Republicans over a series of revelations, including a letter he wrote on behalf of a sex offender and a drug task force investigation that led prosecutors to seek fraud charges against the lawmaker.

House Republicans first voted to eject the media from the meeting Tuesday before debating Durham’s future role as majority whip. Forty-eight members later voted to move ahead with the discussion about removing Durham — one vote short of the required threshold of two-thirds of Republican caucus members.

Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini condemned the outcome.

“The lack of leadership shown today by Tennessee Republicans is stunning,” she said. “Rep. Jeremy Durham, time and again, has shown a severe lack of ethics and good judgment.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said she was disappointed by the decision to hold the meeting behind closed doors.

“It was a caucus decision,” she said. “Now it’s time to be constructive and move on with the busy legislative session.”

Some Republicans had worried that keeping Durham in leadership could hurt efforts to raise money for this year’s elections because the whip is in charge of managing the incumbents’ campaign efforts on behalf of the caucus.

After the vote, Durham blamed the negative attention on the “liberal media.”

“I didn’t run to have a kangaroo-court proceeding, I ran to help people in my district,” he said.

Prosecutors in 2013 sought charges against Durham on allegations that he had altered the dates on medical prescriptions, but he ultimately persuaded a grand jury not to indict him in 2014.

Durham was later criticized by fellow Republicans for writing a character reference for a former youth minister seeking a lenient sentence after pleading guilty to a federal charge of child porn possession. The man later pleaded guilty to a state charge of statutory rape of a 16-year-old parishioner.

Speaker Harwell last fall also had the Legislature’s human resources chief speak to Durham about unspecified behavioral issues. Durham brushed aside questions about that conversation.

“I didn’t know what she was talking about,” Durham said. “She wouldn’t tell me what she was talking about.”

Harwell said she couldn’t divulge more information about what prompted the discussion because personnel files are confidential. But Harwell suggested that Durham should have learned more from the conversation.

“I hope that he’s taking it seriously,” she said. “I would hope he would.”