NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Democratic State Rep. Joe Armstrong on Friday submitted his resignation from the Tennessee General Assembly, avoiding an expected move to oust him following a felony tax fraud conviction in federal court.
State lawmakers are returning into special session next week to repeal a state drunken driving law that threatened to cost $60 million in federal road money. House Speaker Beth Harwell has said that her chamber will also take up efforts to remove Armstrong and another sitting member.
Armstrong’s resignation means that that move will now be limited to Rep. Jeremy Durham, a Franklin Republican who was the subject of an extensive sexual-harassment probe by the state attorney general.
Harwell has said that the move to expel Durham has the support of enough members to reach the two-thirds threshold needed to succeed. Durham has denied most of the allegations and has said he will only attend the ouster proceedings if he is given a chance to present a defense and confront his anonymous accusers.
Supporters of Durham’s ouster say the move is key to prevent the lawmaker from qualifying for a state pension in November. Armstrong’s conviction barred him from seeking another term in office, but it doesn’t affect his pension eligibility.
Armstrong was convicted of tax fraud last month after failing to declare a windfall of more than $300,000 he made buying and then reselling cigarette tax stamps after voting to hike their price. He was acquitted on two other counts of tax evasion and conspiracy.
Prosecutors accused Armstrong of conspiring with his accountant to hide the transactions, made before and after the 2007 cigarette tax hike that the lawmaker had advocated and voted for.
Armstrong, a past president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, testified that he had been swindled by the accountant.
As chairman of the House Health Committee in 2007, Armstrong hit the road in support of an initiative by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, a fellow Democrat, to more than triple the state’s cigarette tax, to 62 cents per pack. The tax hike “should have been a dollar,” Armstrong said at the time.
The indictment said Armstrong set out to line his own pockets by borrowing money to buy tax stamps at the old rate and then re-selling them for a profit after the tax hike went into effect.
Armstrong not only failed to pay taxes on the windfall — he didn’t disclose the earnings as required in state ethics reports. He also denied during the trial that was unethical for him to make money off the cigarette tax hike, which was aimed at boosting education funding and curbing smoking.
“You’ve got people in the Legislature from all walks of life,” Armstrong said from the witness stand. “The General Assembly touches every aspect of our lives.”