Embattled Rep. Jeremy Durham sent an eight-page letter to his House colleagues on Monday in which he defends himself, attacks the women who alleged sexual misconduct and blasts House leadership for its handling of the investigation.
In the letter, Durham addresses a variety of issues ranging from the legislature's sexual harassment policy and House leadership's attempts to expel him to an unrelated, ongoing investigation into his campaign finances. He denies any sexual wrongdoing with the women interviewed by Attorney General Herbert Slatery for his scathing report that found 22 women who accused Durham of inappropriate sexual conduct.
“This type of unbridled authority is dangerous,” he said while discussing the "dangerous precedent" it sets for expelling a member based on an attorney general's report.
Durham, 32, faces an ouster vote this week as lawmakers meet in Nashville for a special legislative session. In the letter, Durham threatens to release a document that he says would name the accusers and show text messages that he says could prove his innocence.
"Due to the way this situation has been handled, my family finds itself in the position of wanting to largely clear my name by releasing names and text messages of many Jane Does while also wanting to not make the situation a bigger circus than it has already become," Durham writes in the letter.
"I've prepared a document responding to each and every Jane Doe — with names — and with text messages stored on a cloud. But that process should be handled according to House rules — not in a public expulsion proceeding."
The attorney general's office spent more than six months compiling its reports. The interactions described by women in the report range from inappropriate sexual comments and contact, like long hugs, to having sex with a 20-year-old "college student/political worker" in his legislative office and home. The women spoke to the attorney general on the condition of anonymity, afraid there could be negative personal and professional ramifications if they were identified.
Victim’s and women’s advocates cautioned about the grave impact releasing the names, or even threatening to do so, could have.
“Releasing the names of victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment would have a chilling effect on other victims coming forward,” said Kathy Walsh, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. She called Durham’s actions unbelievable.
“If we want to prevent things like this from happening in the future, we need to make sure victims have a safe place and safe system so they don’t have to be worried about this information becoming public," she said.
She called for the members of the House who received the letter to stand up to Durham.
Durham says "zero of the 22 Jane Does remotely fit any definition of sexual harassment." He argues that sending a text that says "what's up" or "offering a simple verbal compliment can hardly be considered inappropriate conduct."
The report goes in to detail about many interactions that go substantially further then sending a text message that says "what's up." The attorney general establishes a pattern of behavior for Durham based on the interactions with Durham, but also on more than 70 interviews.
"Rep. Durham's conduct ranged from what some of the women viewed as 'fishing,' such as invitations for drinks with him alone, flirting, and similar conduct, to sexually suggestive comments, such as those to lobbyists Jane Doe #30 that he expected something in return for supporting her bill, Jane Doe #17 ("there's a thousands places I'd rather meet you than my office"), and Jane Doe #63 ("What about thurs-sun...My roommate's gone and I'll be super bored"), to attempted or touching of a sexual nature, such as that reported by intern Jane Doe #44 (attempted kiss, 2015), legislative staff member Jane Doe #24 (pulled her close while talking; kissed her, 2013), lobbyist Jane Doe #17 (pressed her breasts in a full frontal hug with an "mmmmmm" sound, 2015), and lobbyist Jane Doe #2 (rubber her thigh, 2014)," the report states.
It's a (sic) "legally impossibility" that Durham could have harassed any of the women, he argues in the letter. He justifies the argument with a breakdown of the legislative sexual harassment policy. Two pieces of the policy refer to having to endure inappropriate acts as a facet of employment, which he argues do not apply. He also argues the part of the policy that says sexual harassment is "creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment by such conduct" should not apply to him either.
It's the latest effort by Durham to criticize the investigative process, both by the attorney general and by the House special committee created to look in to Durham. He renews that criticism in his letter to colleagues, arguing he hasn't been afforded due process and that he would have spoken with the attorney general had the investigators agreed to "reasonable ground rules." The attorney general's office says it repeatedly offered Durham and his attorney a chance to meet with them.
Durham also alleges many of the Jane Does have ties to special interests that want to expand Medicaid in Tennessee, a proposal he opposes. At no point during any legislative session has the passage of Medicaid expansion or Insure Tennessee, a proposal from Gov. Bill Haslam that would offer new health benefits to many, come anywhere close to passing.
Durham denies allegations he used campaigns for personal purposes but declines to go into detail about the ongoing campaign finance investigation.
He said he doesn't plan to attend the ouster proceedings, but reserves the right to change his mind if he believes House leadership plans to conduct what will, in his view, amount to a fair process.
House Speaker Beth Harwell and Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada say they believe there are more than enough votes to oust Durham. Before the start of Monday's session, Harwell and Casada said they hadn't had a chance to read the letter yet, so they wouldn't comment on its contents.
The special legislative session was set to begin at 2 p.m. CDT Monday, called initially to amend a DUI law passed this year that jeopardizes receiving $60 million in federal funds. A resolution to expel Durham is expected Monday, with a possible ouster vote as soon as Tuesday.
Reporter Stacey Barchenger contributed to this report.
Reach Joel Ebert at 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29. Reach Dave Boucher at 615-259-8892 and on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.
(© 2016 WBIR)