Tennessee House leaders set deadline on petitions to expel Durham, Armstrong

FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016 file photo, Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, right, speaks with reporters following a House Republican caucus meeting on the opening day of the second session of the 109th General Assembly in Nashville, Tenn. A special committee of the House of Representatives released a report Wednesday, July 13, in which an investigation of Durham has found he took advantage of his position to sexually harass at least 22 women. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee House leaders have set an Aug. 5 deadline for representatives to sign two separate petitions calling for a special session.

The first petition is aimed at expelling scandal-ridden Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, about whom a number of state Capitol interns, staffers and lobbyists accused of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior in an investigation by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery.

Petition No. 2 targets both Durham and Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, about to go on federal trial next month on fraud and tax evasion charges.

photo Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery believes a bill before the legislature requiring students to use bathrooms and locker room facilities in line with birth gender may violate federal laws.
photo Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick laughs Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

As of Wednesday morning, just four of the 66 members needed to call the Republican-controlled House into special session have signed the Durham-only petition.

Likewise, only four lawmakers have signed the competing petition for a special session that would seek to oust both Durham and Armstrong. The Democrat set to go on trial early next month on charges he schemed to help pass a cigarette tax increase and bought $250,000 worth of stamps at the old rate and paid no federal taxes on his gains.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, is spearheading the Durham-only effort. House Republican Caucus Chairman Glenn Casada of Franklin, a Durham mentor, later began pushing the second petition aimed at expelling both Durham and Armstrong.

In an interview today, McCormick said there may be problems in getting the necessary two thirds of House members - 66 of 99 representatives - to agree to either petition.

"I have had some people who've shown some resistance based on the idea that they don't want to drag the victims of Durham in particular, the victims of what he has done, out in the limelight," McCormick said in an interview today. "I have had some resistance based on that.

"So we may have trouble getting to 66," McCormick added. "I just don't know. But I think this will flush everybody out pretty quick."

Both petitions became available only late last week. Officials say the task of getting signatures has been complicated because House rules do not permit electronic signatures on petitions by lawmakers seeking to call themselves into special session.

Thus, supporters in the House for one or both petitions were faced with driving to Nashville - a five to six hour trek for lawmakers from Northeast Tennessee lawmakers - to to sign the petitions.

McCormick, who signed both petitions, said today he thinks Aug. 5 signature deadline provides adequate time.

"I think it is," McCormick said. "If people want to sign it they can come sign it. I wanted to do it by Aug. 5 so we could have the special session by Aug. 15 as that falls into a good time" following a widely attended National Conference of State Legislatures conference and before other events.

"That'd be right after the [Aug. 4] primary election too," McCormick noted. "We'll see what the response is on that. I hope we have time to do it then. I think Glenn was going to have one that had Armstrong and Durham in it. We wanted to kind of see which way our caucus members go and which way the Democrats go and just see if there's a flood in either direction. Just to see what happens."

Republicans have 73 members in the House while Democrats have 26.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery's report on his months-long investigation into the allegations against the 32-year-old Durham were released only in mid-July by a special House panel.

Armstrong was indicted late last year by a federal grand jury.

Some lawmakers say they are hoping they can print out the first page of the special session petition, physically sign it, and mail it to legislative leaders and be counted. McCormick, however, said he wasn't sure about that.

But he said if the Aug. 5 signing deadline is close to being met, leaders could extend it.

Durham has suspended his reelection campaign and many here hope that if he loses, as many expect, he will go ahead and resign. Democrats have sought to capitalize politically on Durham and House leaders' response to the allegations.

And if Armstrong is convicted - he and Durham both say they have done nothing wrong - the hope is he would resign.

Democrats have hammered Republicans for months about Durham. More recently, they have said if Durham doesn't resign, his term will expire the day of the Nov. 8 general election and by that time he will be vested in the state employees' pension and eligible for taxpayer-funded benefits when he reaches the required age.

Durham already will be eligible to keep his state health insurance for life, which taxpayers pay the bulk of.