By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A special legislative session to fix a costly drunken driving law kicked off Monday with a squabble about how or whether Tennessee lawmakers should go about trying to expel one of their own.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam hastily called the special session because Tennessee stands to lose $60 million in federal road money because of a new state law that increased the maximum allowable blood alcohol content for drivers below the drinking age.
While quickly fixing that to bring it back into line with federal zero-tolerance standards appears to be headed for easy approval, an unrelated ouster effort against a lawmaker who was the subject of an extensive sexual harassment investigation led to heated exchanges on the House floor.
The probe detailed allegations that Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham of Franklin had improper sexual contact with at least 22 women over the course of his four years in office.
Durham sent an eight-page letter to colleagues before the start of the special session denying any wrongdoing and saying that he won’t attend the session because of a lack of “due process.”
“The investigation was a fishing expedition designed to collect as many allegations as possible — no matter how bogus they were,” Durham said in the letter. “Zero of the 22 Jane Does remotely fit any definition of sexual harassment.”
Allegations in the report included that Durham plied a 20-year-old college student with a cooler full of beer and had sex with her in his office in 2014. Another woman interviewed was a lobbyist who nicknamed Durham “Pants Candy” after she said he rummaged in his pocket before suggestively offering her a dirty, unwrapped mint.
Several of the women discussed feeling as though they could not say no to Durham because he held a position of power over them. None of the women ever filed a formal complaint against him, and many told investigators they felt that doing so would hurt their careers.
Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, said she plans to introduce the resolution to expel Durham on Tuesday. A vote requiring approval from 66 of 99 House members could come later in the day.
“You can’t have a member embarrassing the body like this,” Lynn said. “Those victims deserve justice. I think every time he spoke about the victims, he further victimized them.”
Durham did find a defender in Rep. Rick Womick of Murfreesboro, a longtime critic of fellow Republican leaders in the chamber.
“For one member to be able to stand up and make a motion to expel somebody, we’re a banana republic if that happens,” said Womick.
Several Democrats questioned the process for expelling Durham, with leaders implying that Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville was trying to avoid criticism of her own handling of sexual harassment allegations.
Republicans hit back that Democrats were seeking to gain political points by obstructing the resolution to oust Durham.
“There are some things that ought to be past politics, and one of them is getting rid of a guy who’s a sexual predator,” said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. “Apparently that’s not important to them.”
Harwell said she was “shocked and appalled” that Democrats would “play games” with the ouster process.
“They’re the obstructionists, from their leader on to their membership,” she said.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville denied that Democrats are trying to score political points at Harwell’s expense.
“Gamesmanship is knowing about the allegations about Jeremy Durham for months and months and using every procedural trick in the book to avoid sanctioning him,” Stewart said.
“Republicans have dragged their feet in every way, and they’ve finally been forced by political pressure to expel him,” he said.