By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Next week’s special legislative session will also present an opportunity to oust a lawmaker who was the subject of an extensive sexual harassment probe, Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell’s office said Wednesday.
Gov. Bill Haslam called the special session with the limited purpose of fixing a drunken driving law to avoid losing $60 million in federal road money.
But research by the House clerk and legal staff found that an effort to remove a sitting member would be considered “procedural” under the chamber’s rules and therefore permissible during the special session, said Harwell spokeswoman Kara Owen.
Owen said that a resolution to oust Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham of Franklin is expected to be filed before next week’s session, and that Harwell plans to vote for the measure.
Durham was defeated in his Republican primary in August following the release of the attorney general’s report that detailed allegations of improper sexual contact with 22 women. But he will qualify for $340 in monthly retirement payments unless he is expelled before his pension vests in November.
Durham has denied most of the allegations in Attorney General Hebert Slatery’s report. He has since become the subject of investigations into his campaign finances.
Durham’s attorneys Peter Strianse noted that language in the Tennessee Constitution says that during special sessions lawmakers “shall enter on no legislative business except that for which they were specifically called together.”
“Any motion to oust Representative Durham would be beyond the scope of the proposed special session and, thus, unconstitutional,” Strianse said in an email.
State Rep. Joe Armstrong, a Knoxville Democrat who was convicted of filing a false tax return in federal court last month, is also expected to be part of the ouster effort. But that move is largely a formality because Armstrong, who was barred from seeking re-election following the felony conviction, has already qualified for his state pension.
Haslam has publicly urged Durham to resign, but the governor has declined to get involved in the effort to expel him from the General Assembly.
An earlier effort by lawmakers to call a special session specifically to remove Durham and Armstrong fell well short of the required 66 signatures out of 99 House members in August. Two-thirds of the members would also have to vote in favor of an ouster resolution for it to pass.
Documents obtained as part of a Tennessee Registry of Campaign Finance investigation into Durham indicate a more than $190,000 discrepancy between the lawmaker’s bank records and his re-election account.
The records showed that Durham’s campaign account had a balance of less than $7,000 even as his financial disclosure with the state said he had almost $200,000 on hand.
Further, from The Tennessean:
“There will be a motion and a vote on expulsion, and I welcome the opportunity to vote for it,” Harwell told The Tennessean in an email.
…House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said Wednesday he’s still holding out hope both Durham and Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, will resign before the start of the special session. Harwell made no mention of expelling Armstrong, who was recently convicted of a felony in a federal tax case. But McCormick said he believes there would be enough legislative support to remove both lawmakers
…Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, admitted that removing Armstrong, who would continue to receive benefits if he was expelled, would largely be symbolic while Durham would be more practical and prevent him from receiving an an annual $4,130 pension.