Jeremy Durham investigation committee banks on the power of transparency

The special House committee investigating allegations of sexual harassment by state House Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, did the right thing today in releasing its findings.

The investigative report, which the committee posted online, is the outcome of a months-long investigation by Attorney General Herbert Slatery at the request of the committee.  It included 78 interviews, 22 of them with women who described encounters with Durham.

Durham’s attorney tried to get an injunction to stop the release of the report, but Davidson County Chancellor Russell Perkins said it was in the public’s interest for the report to be released and denied the request.

The media rushes to pick up copies of an Attorney General's report on an investigation into sexual harassment by House member Jeremy Durham after a committee announces its release.

The media rushes to pick up copies of an investigative report on sexual harassment by House member Jeremy Durham.

The committee also faced pressure within the ranks of some Republicans in the House.  State Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, sent an email to his colleagues saying the Legislature’s current Sexual Harassment Policy “strictly forbids and prohibits releasing any information relative to charges and the investigation of sexual harassment.”

But the committee saw it differently. In announcing the release of the report today, the committee’s legislative attorney Doug Himes said it was waiving its right to confidentiality under attorney-client privilege (the AG being its attorney), and releasing Slatery’s report while redacting the names of witnesses to protect their privacy.

The House’s Sexual Harassment Policy promises confidentiality about any complaints, stating, “The purpose of this provision is to protect the confidentiality of the person who files a complaint, to encourage the reporting of any incidents of sexual harassment, and to protect the reputation of any person wrongfully charged with sexual harassment.”

Earlier this year, House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, asked a committee to study the House’s sexual harassment policy and make recommendations for improvement after the allegations against Durham arose and were published in The Tennessean.  A new policy has not yet been made public or adopted.

In this case, the attorney general’s report is thorough, documenting a pattern of sexual encounters between female staffers and lobbyists with the married Durham, including a 20-year-old intern who says she had sex with the lawmaker on his office couch. It would have been wrong to keep the litany of allegations against Durham secret, and the ad hoc committee knew it. From the report:

“Information gathered during the investigation reveals a pattern of conduct by Rep. Durham toward current and former female legislative staff, interns, lobbyists, and others with whom he had contact as a legislator that was sexual in nature and was not related to the business of the House…His access to, interaction with, and behavior toward these women occurred because he was an elected representative and legislative leader.”

Though the committee said that the actions of Durham rose to the level that could get him expelled from the Legislature, they chose not to call a special session to start those proceedings.  If they expelled him this fall, it would only last until the new General Assembly is seated in 2017. And if Durham wins his re-election bid in November, he would become part of the General Assembly again anyway.

The committee should be applauded for allowing open government and transparency to work.

By letting citizens see a public record documenting Durham’s behavior, voters in Williamson County can decide for themselves whether they want to return him to another term. Or not.

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