Fallout from Jeremy Durham’s House expulsion keeps piling up.
In the latest brouhaha, outgoing Rep. Billy Spivey is calling for an investigation into a report of alleged abuse by House Chief Clerk Joe McCord involving a female staff member working in the office of House Speaker Beth Harwell.
Durham isn’t part of the report in which McCord is said to have made crude remarks toward the staffer over an extended period and even flipped the finger toward her 2-year-old granddaughter. But he is on the periphery of this case of political strife, and his unceremonious booting is at the crux of the overall argument.
Spivey made the report public but contends he is not trying to give Harwell’s Democratic opponent ammunition as the Nov. 8 election nears, caring not a whit about her district or who wins the looming House speaker race.
Instead, he says he is merely trying to do some “house cleaning,” while noting he holds no interest in defending Durham, who was ejected by a Harwell-led effort, backed with an attorney general reported showing he sexually harassed 22 women over a two-year period in the Legislative Plaza, his actions so egregious that Harwell removed him from his Plaza office and restricted his contact with women there.
“How do you receive something like that with an allegation like that and then just walk off into the sunset, which certainly was an option for me because I’m not running again?” says Spivey, a Lewisburg Republican.
“But given going through the Jeremy Durham experience and seeing how the process is so dysfunctional, and then I get a report that everybody within the report is implicated, is in a position of authority, who engineered the previous dysfunctional situation, what’s the proper venue to air that out?”
He decided to take it through the court of public opinion, likely his only avenue, because, politically speaking, Spivey, with only four years in the House and on the way out, would have to be considered a gnat in Harwell’s eye.
An outsider might ask: How did this arise roughly two years later?
Connie Ridley, director of Legislative Administrative, says a staff member brought concerns to her about two years ago, leading her to conduct a thorough investigation and providing the staffer with “full satisfaction.”
Harwell says the whole situation goes directly to Durham’s ouster.
“It is no secret that Rep. Spivey is a longtime defender of Jeremy Durham’s and is upset about his expulsion at the special session – which Spivey failed to attend,” she notes in a statement.
“Rep. Spivey did not want the attorney general’s report on Durham released to the public and would not sign off on the report.”
Harwell contends Spivey and other Durham supporters are simply lashing out at those who expelled him and calls it “irresponsible” to forward such a report without checking facts and releasing an “inaccurate compilation of events,” playing “political football” with employees and their jobs “because he personally disagreed with Jeremy Durham’s expulsion.”
“I take all allegations of harassment seriously. Personnel issues are always handled by Legislative Administration in a professional manner, and they seek to reach a satisfactory conclusion for all parties,” Harwell contends.
Spivey, though, says, “The only thing I’m alleging is that I got a report, and the only request I made is that an investigation take place.”
The letter he forwarded to The Tennessean states, “I’m submitting this to you because I believe that something must be done about the hostile work environment in some offices at the Plaza. As a staff member I can say first hand that we live in constant fear of being fired and retaliation from those in leadership.”
In describing the alleged abuse by McCord and the full incident, the letter says Ridley told the woman she could go work for a member of the Black Caucus but would have to take a demotion and pay cut. It also contends Harwell didn’t take any disciplinary action against McCord.
Defending himself against Harwell’s response, Spivey says she spent more time attacking him than denying the claims in the report. Spivey took a job as plant manager of Walker Die Casting this year and says he opted against seeking re-election and attending the special session because of the responsibility he shoulders in overseeing the 800-employee operation.
“Any human being walking the face of this planet that knows me knows my relationship with Jeremy Durham. We were adversaries, not allies, and for her to say that, I take exception to it,” Spivey adds.
(Spivey is incredulous that Durham apparently was evicted from the Tennessee-Florida football game after popping a Gator fan in the face. While we’ve all been riled up at football affairs, eventually we grow up.)
He also contends Harwell placed him on the ad hoc committee to look into Durham’s actions because she knew he felt the same way about Durham as she did.
But Spivey says, ultimately, he refused to sign the report against Durham and vote in favor of it because he felt it identified the unnamed women Durham is said to have harassed. Consequently, the report ran counter to the House’s purpose of solving sexual harassment and its promise to keep victims’ identities secret.
Spivey felt the fix was in on Durham long before the AG’s report came out and the committee’s final action took place.
In fact, a summer press conference to announce the committee’s decision was postponed more than an hour, apparently to try to persuade Spivey to go along with it. His decision to hold out created some hard feelings that still exist.
Spivey was one of several legislators, including Republican Rep. Jimmy Matlock of East Tennessee, who is running against Harwell for the House speaker post, who went on a fishing trip at the invitation of a key proponent of voucher legislation designed to give students in low-performing public schools’ taxpayer dollars to attend private schools.
An article in The Tennessean detailing the trip largely focuses on the fact the lawmakers were not required to report the trip as they do campaign contributions and publicly funded junkets.
A follow-up article also quoted an unnamed legislator as saying Spivey brought out the report about McCord’s alleged abuse in an effort to deflect criticism over the fishing trip. That grabbed Spivey’s goat.
In addition to saying he paid for his own Southwest Airlines flight for the trip, which focused mainly on leadership, Spivey adds, “If you ain’t got guts enough to say who you are, and you run for office and your name’s out there like that all the time, keep your mouth shut, because you have no reason to speculate about anything.”
Meanwhile, Harwell and several others took an unreported flight to Raleigh, North Carolina, to visit a charter school, Thales Academy, last year and met with several state education leaders.
“This was not recreational in nature,” Harwell’s spokeswoman points out. “No one in the group was a registered lobbyist.
The Speaker maintains her position that full disclosure and transparency is best for the public, and she, along with others who have expressed support, intend to make improvements to the law. This trip is included in those the Speaker thinks should be reported, and is working on legislation to that end.”
Granted, a day-long trip for education meetings and charter school tours sounds a lot more like work than a fishing trip to the ocean.
But it’s funny how it takes a news report before anything’s ever done about these problems.
For instance, key House members, including Harwell and Matlock, acknowledge hearing about Durham’s deeds in 2015, well before the last session started. But not until three women made anonymous statements in the press did a real investigation start.
Harwell maintains she’s done everything she could to take care of the Durham debacle as quickly as she could. But there’s no doubt she took a political beating over this wayward one, with women in her upper-class Davidson County district likely raising their eyes at how she handled it.
If Democratic challenger Chris Moth can’t win with this type of material, Harwell will likely never lose.
House Democrats have consistently called for an investigation into an unnamed employee fired for bringing up Durham’s alleged harassment to her legislator boss.
Reps. Mike Stewart and Bo Mitchell turned Republicans on their ear during the special session by putting that situation in the spotlight and leading to a sudden vote on Durham’s dismissal.
The Black Caucus also wants an investigation into why the staffer in the latest complaint was told she could be sent to work for one of its members and take a pay cut. In addition, black legislators want a study of staff pay discrepancies.
Furthermore, Rep. Brenda Gilmore, a Nashville Democrat who chairs the Black Caucus, demands to know why she and Rep. Sherry Jones were cut off in a “demeaning way” during Durham debate while their male colleagues from both sides of the aisle were allowed to rail on for up to 30 minutes.
“What I said in that statement was that the way females are treated in this General Assembly and in this Plaza, I believe, contributed or perpetuated the kind of atmosphere where it was easy for Rep. Durham to sexually harass the 22 women that he harassed,” Gilmore says.
Spivey’s latest revelation only makes matters worse, especially with a toddler involved, Gilmore notes.
“But to threaten someone that they’re going to be transferred to a Black Caucus member, it boggles my mind how someone could even use those kinds of words or insinuate that that would be a demotion,” she adds.
So here we are in 2016, and women and black legislators, in some instances, feel they’re being pushed to the back of the bus. That’s no shock in a male-dominated culture.
But Spivey makes one final point, and this is not to take his side over Harwell’s or to back his politics. Asked why it takes so long for steps to be taken to correct serious problems in the Legislature, he says:
“There’s a culture of fear, a fear of not being re-elected. And there’s also a hunger for power. And I don’t know if it’s just natural to humankind or what. But I never ran, never voted to ever go back. Obviously, I’ve got things to do otherwise.
“But when you get that power, they say intoxicating is the best word for it, they’re willing to do anything to protect it, to possess it. And that’s not what the people of the state deserve.”
Regardless of what anyone thinks about Jeremy Durham and Harwell’s handling of his ejection, those are words every legislator should heed.
Sam Stockard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.