Posted: Feb. 22, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Politics is a pitiless endeavor, but it is less so in Delaware, where state Rep. John C. Atkins was accorded a time-out because of his emergency gall bladder surgery in late January.

The time-out ended today.

The House Ethics Committee went back to work Thursday in a closed session in Dover to resume its inquiry into the pre-Halloween conduct of Atkins, R-Probation.

To recap: Atkins, now in his third term, was arrested in the early morning hours of Oct. 29 in his Millsboro home after a 911 hang-up call to the local police, who arrived to check out what was going on and charged him with offensive touching for grabbing his wife Heather's arm during a fight.

With the election only nine days away, Atkins went public immediately with a press release and an appearance on a radio talk show, but like Richard Nixon, he chose the modified limited hang-out route. Atkins insisted he had not been drinking and did not bother mentioning that he and Heather had been partying earlier in Ocean City, Md., where he trumped a traffic stop for speeding and suspicion of drunken driving with a display of his legislative identification card to the police.

Nor did Atkins disclose that he took advantage of his office in the ensuing weeks to call the attorney general and downstate judges as he apparently sought to pull strings to lessen his predicament. He was sentenced to probation and a first offenders program for domestic violence, leading to a cleansed record if he stays out of trouble for a year.

In the back channels of both the state House of Representatives and the Republican Party, it has become clear that people wish Atkins would go away. They want to distance themselves from him -- partly because they do not want him tarnishing their institutions and partly because they do not want the voters taking out their anger about Atkins on them.

It makes it virtually certain that the House, where Atkins' fellow Republicans are in charge, will punish him in some way, likely choosing from the lighter end of a range of penalties that includes censure, reprimand, a fine, suspension or expulsion.

The Ethics Committee, a five-member panel chaired by Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith, seems close to moving out of its first phase, which is a preliminary inquiry conducted confidentially by staff members. The lead staff member is Battle R. Robinson, a Republican lawyer who is a retired Family Court judge with experience dealing with domestic violence cases.

The Ethics Committee's next phase should be more public, possibly through the release of a report or the underlying documents or through a public hearing -- although the question is whether it will be public enough.

Throughout this sorry affair, there is one document whose secrecy has been guarded vigilantly, and that is the full Millsboro police report. Atkins has refused to release it, the Millsboro police have refused to release it, and Attorney General Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, a Democrat who inherited the case, has refused to release it.

It is the one document that could show whether Atkins was charged properly and prosecuted appropriately. It also could show whether Atkins was entirely forthcoming in the way he recounted his arrest in his press release, which was issued through official House channels, or whether he used those channels to promulgate a cover-up. For a copy of the press release, click here.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have had enough of Atkins, to the point they are casting about for a replacement candidate, to run either in 2008 when his term is up or in a special election if his seat somehow becomes vacant beforehand. The name mentioned most frequently is John L. Rieley, the Sussex County Republican vice chair. Not to be outdone, the Democrats have had thoughts of encouraging Randall "R.L." Hughes, a state police major, to leave the ranks and run.

Atkins seems bent on riding it all out, even if there seems to be little support for it. He has stunned people by weaving his arrest and his gall bladder attack into a joke, which is said to go like this:

As he convulsed with pain, Heather asked if he wanted her to call 911, and he said, "I would rather die. Please don't call 911."