Posted: Oct. 19, 2007
THE CASE FINALLY IS CLOSED ON JOHN ATKINS
By Celia Cohen
When John C. Atkins last was seen leaving Legislative Hall in Dover, he was skipping out one step ahead of a roll call for throwing him out of the state House of Representatives.
Atkins, a three-term Republican from Millsboro, resigned in March once the House Ethics Committee found he had brought the chamber into disrepute after being arrested for fighting with his wife Heather in their home to end a pre-Halloween night of boozy carousing and for abusing his office to try to get out of his troubles.
Atkins, who made his way in politics as a happy-go-lucky scamp, fought hard to keep his seat. He tried charm. He tried penitence. He tried pulling strings. He tried intimidation.
What finally pushed him out was a fresh allegation that he had tampered with a witness by coercing a teen-age babysitter, who was staying at the Atkins' home the night of the arrest, to keep quiet about what she knew.
The Ethics Committee shipped that new charge to the attorney general for further investigation, and nothing more was heard about it. The matter seemed to be buried by disinterest.
It was not. Instead, the Justice Department quietly concluded its inquiry in July by clearing Atkins.
A report at that time was supposed to have gone to state Rep. Richard C. Cathcart, the Republican majority leader who chairs the House Ethics Committee, but he says he never received it.
With the anniversary of Atkins' arrest approaching, a request for an update from Delaware Grapevine to Cathcart and the Justice Department shook the report loose. It was faxed Thursday to Cathcart, and a copy was obtained Friday by Delaware Grapevine.
"It is the conclusion of the Department of Justice, as a matter of Delaware law, the conversation with the babysitter was not a criminal act," the report said.
The report seems to be the last word for the House, which spent months in turmoil as it tried to decide how to deal with Atkins. "I'm not sure what we can do except take the conclusions that the Attorney General's Office came to and close the chapter," Cathcart said.
Charles M. Oberly III, a former Democratic attorney general who is Atkins' lawyer, was more emphatic. "It's totally done with. I hope that puts it to rest," he said.
The four-page report described the events in the early morning hours of Oct. 29 when the babysitter, whose parents were friends of John and Heather Atkins, was staying overnight, asleep as the couple returned home.
The babysitter awoke to hear the fight as well as the hang-up telephone call that brought a Millsboro police officer to the house. Although afterwards she did not recall talking to him, police records show that she was interviewed in the kitchen and said she did not see the incident but heard it.
Later that day, Atkins and the babysitter talked by telephone. The election was days away, and he told her he intended to deal publicly with his arrest by appearing on a radio show the next day.
"He told her not to let her parents know, that they were going on the radio Monday morning and take care of it, and this was all going to blow over. She further stated John Atkins told her, 'If anybody had asked me, umm, to tell 'em that I was asleep and I didn't hear anything,'" the report recounted.
"When asked by the Department of Justice investigator, she said she did not assume John Atkins meant the police by 'anyone.' She further stated when asked that she did not feel threatened or endangered or that anything negative would happen to her."
The report concluded: "Taking the conversation in context, it does not appear it was John Atkins' intent to prevent or dissuade the babysitter from testifying at a trial or authorized inquiry, but rather with the intent to keep his conduct quiet so as not to sully his reputation with his friends (including the babysitter's parents) and the public at large."
The report appears to close out the legal aspects for Atkins, whose criminal record will be wiped clean under a first offenders' program as long as he completes a yearlong sentence of probation in early December.
"I want it to be known I was never even contacted or questioned by the attorney general about this matter. It tells me that when they did this investigation brought by the House of Representatives, there must not be anything to it," Atkins said.
The report does not end the political ramifications, however. Atkins would not discuss any potential plans he has, but there is widespread talk that he will try to win back his old seat, which went in a special election to Republican Gregory A. Hastings, as soon as the 2008 election and might try to do it as a Democrat.
Already Cathcart and Atkins were exchanging words.
"I think we'll have him to deal with. I'm convinced he's going to run. Maybe if he gets pounded again, he'll understand," Cathcart said.
"It's kind of what I expected of Dick Cathcart -- just keep piling on," Atkins said.