Special ouster session way short on signatures

The idea of calling a special session of the Legislature to consider ouster of state Rep. Jeremy Durham — and possibly Rep. Joe Armstrong — appears to be losing steam.

As of Friday, only four nine of the necessary 66 state House members had signed either of two submitted petitions. One by House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, calls for expelling Durham, R-Franklin, and the other by House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, calls for ousting both Durham and Armstrong, D-Knoxville.

Durham has been accused in an investigative report by state Attorney General Herbert Slatery of sexually harassing 22 women legislative staffers, lobbyists and interns. Armstrong goes on trial Tuesday on federal tax evasion charges that prosecutors contend involve profits from a cigarette tax increase he supported as a lawmaker.

Casada said in a telephone interview Sunday that he was a bit surprised at the scant signatures so far and will confer “mid-week” with House Speaker Beth Harwell to consider the possibility of extending the deadline for signing the petitions that is currently set for Friday.

But he also said that, should the signature drive fall short, he would accept that decision as “what the majority wants.”

Both petitions set Aug. 15 as the date for the proposed special session. Both a two-thirds majority of all House and Senate members ——66 in the House and 22 in the Senate — must sign the call before it can be effective. Casada said he talked last week with Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who assured him, “If you can get your votes (for a special session), I’ll get mine.”

Casada said he had signed McCormick’s petition as well as his own, believing Armstrong, as well as Durham, have “broken the people’s trust” under information now available — Durham in the Slatery investigative report and Armstrong on contents of his indictment showing “he profited from his position as a legislator” whether or not a crime was committed in that process, as will be decided at trial.

As initially announced, procedure for signing the petitions on the House side called for each legislator to visit Harwell’s Nashville office and sign. Some have suggested that an emailed or faxed document with the legislator’s signature would suffice, but propriety of that procedure has been in some dispute.

Legally, Gov. Bill Haslam could call the Legislature into special session on his own without a need for legislator signatures. But the governor has said he does not intend to do so, leaving the decision to legislators themselves.

“If I have to call them in, that probably means they can’t get the votes because that means they couldn’t get the signatures,” Haslam said.

In the case of Durham, ouster prior to expiration of his current term would block his eligibility for a state pension upon reaching age 55. Legislators must spend four years in office to be vested in the system and he will complete four years on Election Day in November, putting in place a pension of about $340 per month when it kicks in.

In Armstrong’s case, the veteran legislator was vested in the pension system long ago and he will still be eligible even if convicted in his upcoming trial. In 2006, the Legislature approved a law that declares a lawmaker convicted of a felony forfeits his or her pension benefits — but it doesn’t apply to legislators vested before enactment of the law.

UPDATE/Correction: A spokeswoman for the state Treasurer’s office, which oversees the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System, says Armstrong could lose his pension if convicted of a felony — if that felony arose from duties as a legislator. From a Shelli King email:

We have reviewed the statutes relating to the issue and thought you may appreciate knowing that the last paragraph of the article is not entirely accurate as a result of a 2006 amendment to the Tennessee felony forfeiture statute. The amendment added Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 8-35-124(a)(3), which provides:

(3) Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, each time a person is elected to a public office of this state . . ., such person shall, as a condition of such election, be deemed to consent and agree to the forfeiture of such person’s retirement benefits from the Tennessee consolidated retirement system . . ., if such person is convicted in any state or federal court of a felony arising out of that person’s official capacity, constituting malfeasance in office. Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (e) or any other law to the contrary, this subdivision (a)(3) shall apply regardless of the date the person became a member of the public pension system, such person having consented to the provisions of this subdivision (a)(3) as a condition of such election.

Since Representative Joe Armstrong ran for and was subsequently re-elected after the effective date of the above statute (i.e., February 15, 2006), that statute applies to him.

King adds: “Because we are part of the process that determines whether a member who is convicted of a felony would lose benefits, we would never express an opinion on a situation that has not yet occurred.”