NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee state Rep. Jeremy Durham was a vocal young conservative and a rising legislative star, unafraid to pick fights with fellow Republican legislators or the popular GOP governor. But his increasingly erratic behavior and mounting sexual harassment allegations finally caught up with him when the chamber voted 70-2 to expel him.
The vote Tuesday to oust Durham, who represented the Nashville suburb of Franklin, followed an attorney general’s investigation outlining lurid allegations of improper sexual contact with at least 22 women during his four years in office.
After preliminary results of the investigation were released last spring, Durham was even exiled by the Republican House speaker to an office away from other lawmakers, staff and lobbyists.
Durham, who has said he’s a victim of a Republican establishment vendetta, spoke in the House well Tuesday in one final effort to avoid becoming to the first state lawmaker to be ousted in 36 years.
“What they’ve done is they’ve had someone spend five months collecting as many rumors as possible, and then put them into a fancy document,” Durham said. “And now they want you all to violate the Constitution, refuse me any form of due process and bail them out when they’re the ones who have messed this whole thing up.”
In the face of vigorous questioning by Republicans and Democrats alike, he denied most of the allegations. Then he abruptly left the chamber in mid-debate, sparking an uproar among lawmakers who wanted to pose more questions. But when the expulsion resolution came to a vote, it easily cleared the required two-thirds threshold with bipartisan support.
Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville expressed relief that the Durham matter had been concluded.
“The public saw today that we take it seriously,” Harwell said. “We have severely punished one of our own.”
The investigation report included allegations 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.
“Looking back, I think there was definitely some fault that I had,” Durham said. “But it’s not the salacious ones in the media. … The ones that everybody is talking about are the most false ones in there.”
Harwell effectively quarantined Durham last spring, moving his office across the street and barring him from entering the main legislative area other than for official business. The move came after state Attorney General Herbert Slatery said Durham could pose a risk to “unsuspecting women” at the Capitol complex.
Durham, an attorney, quickly sought to exert his influence after winning office four years ago. He successfully challenged a more experienced colleague to be elected House majority whip and sponsored a law barring the governor from expanding Medicaid without legislative approval.
But those successes began unraveling as he drew attention for other actions, beginning with reports that prosecutors had sought fraud charges against him for falsifying prescriptions. The grand jury in his home county declined to indict him.
Lawmakers also questioned why Durham had written a letter on House stationery to a federal judge urging leniency in the sentencing of a former pastor who pleaded guilty to child porn possession and statutory rape of a 16-year-old parishioner.
As the sexual harassment allegations mounted, Durham was forced to step down as majority whip and remove himself from the House Republican caucus. The release of the attorney general’s report led to him to suspend his re-election campaign that he later lost by a wide margin. But Durham steadfastly refused calls for him to resign.
Within minutes of his ouster, Durham’s name had been scrubbed from his legislative office, his office door was locked and his access to the Capitol complex was revoked.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican who has been one of Durham’s most vocal critics, said he was happy to see him go.
“I hope he sets his life on a good course and he’s got plenty of time to correct what he’s done wrong,” McCormick said. “I hope he does that, but I’m glad he’s not going to do it here.”