NASHVILLE -- Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell and Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes on Monday called for GOP Rep. Jeremy Durham to resign his legislative seat following allegations of sexual harassment.
The comments came during a news conference in which Harwell defended her previous actions regarding the embattled Williamson County lawmaker, saying, "I have never received a formal or informal complaint."
Durham's previous troubles multiplied over the weekend and he quit his House GOP whip post following revelations by the Tennessean that three women who worked at the legislature said Durham sent inappropriate, late-night text messages to them, in some cases asking for photos.
Top Republicans' Monday afternoon news conference followed Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini's charges that top House Republican leaders sought to shield Durham. She called for the resignations of Harwell, Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga and GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin.
"In light of these recent revelations, it is important that Rep. Durham step down from his position as a member of this body," Haynes told reporters.
Asked whether she agreed with Haynes, Harwell said that while the decision is up to Durham, she believed the 32-year-old lawmaker should resign.
"I think I've made my feelings clear," she said. "I think he needs help, and I think it would be in his best interest."
Meanwhile, Harwell announced the creation of an independent committee to look at the Legislature's 19-year-old sexual harassment policies she inherited upon becoming speaker in 2011.
Harwell also announced that, in the future, the 99 representatives will be required to undergo training on sexual harassment issues.
And Harwell said interns will now be banned from attending legislative receptions and events. Moreover, she said, they'll be told not to give their cellphone numbers to lawmakers.
In her news conference, Mancini questioned what legislative leaders knew about Durham and when.
Speaking with the Times Free Press later Monday, McCormick said he had heard "rumors and accusations."
"No proof. I actually had had two people come to me and say they had problems with him," he said. "I encouraged them to immediately go to Legal [division] and to begin a process to complain about it. And neither wanted to do it."
He said he later followed up and told both women "they would be surprised at how many members would stand up with them if they did make a formal complaint. But they didn't want to do a formal complaint."
McCormick said while they didn't say it outright, he believes they feared the information would become public.
Harwell said last month she had instructed Connie Ridley, the director of Legislative Administration, to speak with Durham about what constituted appropriate behavior. Durham told reporters Ridley did speak with him, but he said the conversation was vague.
"I didn't even know what she was talking about. She wouldn't tell me what she was talking about. It was very short. It was very low-key. She just said, every now and then I meet with legislators I forget what she said. It was very short," Durham said.
Durham announced Sunday he was resigning his House majority whip post, but said he had no intention of stepping down from the Legislature and would seek re-election to his Williamson County House seat.
The Associated Press reported the lawmaker did not immediately return text and email messages seeking comment on Monday's developments.
Rumors regarding inappropriate behavior have followed Durham for months. Meanwhile, some fellow Republicans were critical of Durham over past issues, including an alleged forged drug prescription, on which a grand jury declined to indict him, as well as for his writing a character reference letter on behalf of a former youth pastor who pleaded guilty in federal court to child porn possession.
On Jan. 14, 66 of the House Republican Caucus's 73 members met behind closed doors to consider an effort to consider ousting Durham as their whip. Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, was a prime mover of the meeting.
Republicans debated for about an hour over caucus rules, which do not directly address ouster. Eventually, it was decided two-thirds, or 49 members, needed to vote to suspend rules and consider the motion. While a majority of the caucus voted to proceed, it failed by one vote to reach the required two thirds majority
The Tennessean reported a woman contacted Alexander about Durham's behavior a week before the caucus meeting.
"The words she used were 'sexual harassment,'" said Alexander, who said he referred her to the Legislature's human resources officer. Caucus officials, however, declined the woman's request to address the caucus about Durham.
Durham, meanwhile, told the Tennessean he didn't recall sending text messages to the women. None of that was mentioned in his resignation announcement. He blamed his problems on a "relentless media-driven agenda."
Mancini accused Harwell and other top GOP leaders of letting problems fester and create a toxic atmosphere for women at the state Capitol.
Haynes counterattacked and questioned why Mancini isn't calling for the resignation of Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, who was indicted on federal tax fraud charges stemming from a 1996 cigarette tax hike.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.
Updated Jan. 25 at 11:15 p.m.