Open Government transparency versus Sexual Harassment privacy in Tennessee case

We have an opinion column on the handling of the case against Tennessee lawmaker Jeremy Durham.

But first, the background story.

The talk in Nashville this week has been the release of details into a sexual harassment investigation into St. Representative Jeremy Durham.

He has been accused of harassing several women who had to work with him in his role as a lawmaker.

On Wednesday a special committee of the House of Representatives released a report on the investigation.

We learned that 22 women filed complaints.

One said that as early as 2013, fellow lobbyists warned her to stay away.

One lobbyist told investigators that she feared crossing him because “they have the trump card. They can make or break you.”

One young intern said she had hoped to get a full-time job and was afraid to look like “that girl” who caused trouble. Another said she told Durham he was being inappropriate and he responded, “Welcome to Capitol Hill.”

But should voters know the details of sexual harassment report before charges can be acted on? (early voting starts today in Durham’s re-election bid)

Deborah Fisher, executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, says our right to know trumps his right to privacy.

deb fisherJeremy 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 Wednesday 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 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 Wednesday, 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 the women 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 in his office. 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.

Deborah Fisher is executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. She can be reached at

Categories: Government & Politics, Regional News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *