- Associated Press - Thursday, December 24, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - State Rep. Joe Armstrong said Thursday that he quietly “stepped down” from his House Democratic Caucus leadership position after being indicted earlier this year on federal fraud and tax evasion charges.

“The reason I stepped down is so I can concentrate on my tax issue,” the Knoxville Democrat told The Associated Press.

Armstrong’s move was first made public in a story published earlier this week by the Knoxville News Sentinel.

He said his decision to step down as House minority leader pro tempore was sent in an email to fellow Democrats in June, shortly after he was indicted, and in compliance with House Democratic Caucus rules calling for resignation from any leadership position upon indictment.

Armstrong has pleaded not guilty to the charges in connection to an increase in the state’s cigarette tax.

The June 16 indictment accuses him of devising a scheme beginning in 2006 to profit from the cigarette tax hike planned by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. Armstrong is accused of failing to report more than $318,000 in income.

Despite the charges, Armstrong said he hopes to eventually return to the leadership post.

“At this point, the position is still open for me after I’m vindicated to come back,” he told the AP.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, had earlier said that Democrats had done “absolutely nothing” in dealing with Armstrong’s legal troubles.

McCormick’s comments were made amid controversy surrounding one of his GOP colleagues. Republicans are scheduled to meet right before the beginning of the Jan. 12 legislative session to vote on whether to replace Rep. Jeremy Durham of Franklin as majority whip after revelations that prosecutors sought charges against him on allegations of changing the dates on two prescriptions.

A grand jury last year declined to indict the lawmaker.

About three months later, Durham wrote a character reference on behalf of a former youth pastor who pleaded guilty in federal court to child porn possession and later to a state charge of statutory rape of a 16-year-old congregant.

McCormick didn’t comment on whether Durham should step down from his leadership post, but he commended Armstrong for his decision.

“He … did the right thing, and I hope it turns out well for him,” McCormick said.

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