- Associated Press - Monday, January 25, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - House Speaker Beth Harwell and State Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes on Monday called for state Rep. Jeremy Durham to resign from his seat in the Tennessee General Assembly amid allegations of sexual harassment.

In a news conference at the legislative office complex, Harwell also announced an overhaul of sexual harassment policies following a report in The Tennessean over the weekend that Durham sent inappropriate text messages to women working at the Legislature.

“In light of these recent revelations, it is important that Rep. Durham step down from his position as a member of this body,” Haynes said.

Harwell said it would ultimately be Durham’s decision, but she said she believes he 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.”

Harwell said the House will begin work to update the Legislature’s 19-year-old sexual-harassment policies. Once that is complete, each of the chamber’s 99 members will undergo sexual-harassment training, she said.

The speaker also said interns will be banned from attending legislative receptions or parties, and they will be instructed not to give their cellphone numbers to lawmakers.

Durham announced Sunday that he would step aside from his position as House majority whip, but would remain in the Legislature and aggressively seek re-election to the Williamson County seat this fall.

In a written statement Monday, Durham denied any wrongdoing.

“I’ve never sexually harassed anyone and I’m sorely disappointed that members of my own party would rush to such judgment given that no complaints were ever filed and the general lack of evidence suggesting I did anything wrong,” he said.

Durham has been in the spotlight since it was revealed that prosecutors in 2014 sought fraud charges against the lawmaker on allegations of altering two prescriptions. A grand jury declined to indict him, however.

The lawmaker’s judgment was also questioned by other Republican leaders after he wrote a character reference letter on behalf of a former youth pastor who pleaded guilty in federal court to child porn possession.

In its report, The Tennessean also said a woman had contacted Republican Rep. David Alexander of Winchester about Durham’s behavior the week before a Jan. 12 caucus meeting being convened to discuss Durham’s future in House GOP leadership.

“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 narrowly survived an effort to oust him at the caucus meeting.

In response to the Tennessean’s report over the weekend, Durham was quoted by newspaper as saying that he did not remember sending the text messages.

The legislator did not mention the allegations in his resignation announcement, which blamed the negative attention on what he called a “relentless media-driven agenda.”

The House majority whip is in charge of incumbents’ re-election efforts, and some Republicans worried that donors could become skittish if Durham remained in the role.

State Democratic Party Chairwoman Macy Mancini earlier in the day demanded the resignation of Harwell and other House GOP leaders for failing to prevent what she called a “toxic” atmosphere for women at the legislative office complex.

Haynes dismissed Mancini’s call as “absolute nonsense,” and in turn urged her to demand the resignation of Democratic Rep. Joe Armstrong of Knoxville, who faces a federal trial on tax fraud charges related to a cigarette tax hike a decade ago.

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