By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State Rep. Jeremy Durham is taking a leave of absence from the Tennessee General Assembly amid calls for his resignation and the Senate speaker’s allegation on Thursday that he had an affair with another lawmaker.
House Speaker Beth Harwell also asked the Tennessee attorney general to launch an independent investigation of Durham that could become part of an effort to vote the second-term Franklin Republican out of the House.
Durham earlier this week stepped down as House majority whip and later withdrew from the House GOP caucus altogether amid several women’s allegations of inappropriate behavior by the lawmaker, both in person and via text messages.
Durham has denied any wrongdoing, but has received permission from Harwell’s office to take up to two weeks of leave from the Legislature to seek unspecified treatment.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, on Thursday added to the growing furor surrounding Durham by alleging that the married lawmaker had an affair with Republican Rep. Leigh Wilburn of Somerville, causing her to resign last month.
Asked how he had drawn that conclusion about Durham and Wilburn, Ramsey said: “You don’t have to be real smart to read between the lines.”
Wilburn resigned just one year into her first term due to unspecified “unforeseen circumstances.” She hasn’t spoken to reporters about her decision to step down, and through a relative declined comment on Ramsey’s claims.
A Durham spokesman said in an email that the lawmaker “categorically denies having any physical relationship” with Wilburn.
Ramsey criticized Durham for trying to blame news media coverage for the negative attention he has received.
“The press didn’t force somebody to send text messages after midnight asking for pictures. The press didn’t force somebody to have an affair with another state rep, and force them to resign,” he said.
Calls for Durham’s ouster from the General Assembly have been complicated because none of the women raising concerns about the lawmaker has filed a formal complaint.
Harwell, who has called for an overhaul of the House guidelines on sexual harassment, said Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s report could become part of the record “if and when an expulsion resolution comes before the House of Representatives.”
She told reporters earlier in the day that she hopes it doesn’t have to come to that.
“As I’ve said all along, I think it has been in his best interest to resign,” she said.
Harwell has been joined by several other prominent Republicans urging Durham to consider resigning from the Legislature, including Gov. Bill Haslam, state GOP Chairman Ryan Haynes and Ramsey.
“It’s not fair for what he’s doing to us as legislators,” Ramsey said. “I think it taints us in the public — they think that’s the way they all are.”
The sexual-harassment allegations followed earlier revelations of Durham’s questionable behavior. In 2014, Durham wrote a character reference on behalf of a youth pastor who pleaded guilty to child porn possession and statutory rape of a 16-year-old parishioner.
Earlier that year, prosecutors had sought prescription fraud charges against the lawmaker, but a grand jury declined to indict Durham.
Haslam told reporters after a Tennessee Press Association speech Thursday that it’s time for Durham to go.
“I don’t know how Jeremy can serve his constituents under the current conditions,” the governor said. “I think it’d be better for him and better for the state if he would resign.”