NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A state representative accused of sexually harassing at least 22 women said Thursday that nearly all of the allegations in an attorney general's report are either false or taken out of context.
Republican state Rep. Jeremy Durham said he never attempted sexual contact with any of the women whose stories are described in the report. He also said he was suspending his re-election campaign to focus on his family, although he stopped short of resigning his seat.
Reaction from leadership in the supermajority Republican General Assembly was quick, with House Speaker Beth Harwell calling Durham's denials "insulting to the brave women whose testimony was detailed in the report." She also said he needs to make it clear that he is not running for re-election. Early primary voting starts Friday, so Durham's name already is on the ballot.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said Durham should resign immediately.
"His actions were beyond disgraceful," Ramsey said in an emailed statement. "Suspending his campaign but refusing to resign is an affront to the women of this state and the taxpayers who pay his salary."
Durham spoke to reporters at his attorney's office, making a brief statement before leaving the room through a back door and refusing to take any questions.
The report looked at Durham's conduct over about a three-year period beginning in late 2012. It was released Wednesday after a five-month investigation that included interviews with 72 witnesses, several of whom showed investigators text and Facebook messages from Durham.
Many women told investigators that Durham constantly pursued them for drinks, tried to get them to meet him alone, and sometimes grabbed, hugged and kissed them. One woman said he was so persistent he was like a "dog on a bone."
One former political worker told investigators that when she was 20, Durham plied her with a cooler full of beer and then had sex with her in his office.
A female lobbyist nicknamed him "Pants Candy" after Durham rummaged in his pocket and suggestively offered her a dirty, unwrapped mint, she said. Others said he sent them late-night, suggestive text messages, and said he seemed to be "fishing" to see how far he could go, describing him as "creepy," and giving them "ick feelings."
One legislative clerk recalled how Durham said "Welcome to Capitol Hill" when she rebuffed his request for drinks, saying he was married and she was engaged.
"I'd like to smack him in the mouth," Ramsey said of that particular comment. "That's not the image of Capitol Hill. That's the image of one person."
Durham said that a handful of the anecdotes in the report were true but said his intentions were harmless.
Attorney General Herbert Slatery issued a statement saying he stands by the report.
In response to the report, Harwell and Ramsey approved a new workplace harassment policy on Thursday that takes effect immediately. It includes a requirement that anyone in a supervisory role, including legislators, must report harassment if approached with a complaint.
Many of the women in the report said they were unwilling to file a formal complaint for fear of losing their jobs or other retaliation. But some of them had talked with supervisors and other state representatives about the harassment.
"They should have turned him in," Ramsey said of the lawmakers who knew about the allegations but did nothing. "I fault them for that."