Posted: March 27, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The state House of Representatives had the goods on John C. Atkins and most likely the votes to expel him, so he dodged it Tuesday the only way he could. He resigned.

There did not seem to be a wet eye in the place.

Ending a dogged stand of resistance, Atkins took his leave in a brief proceeding in the House chamber in Dover. It lasted about 10 minutes, long enough for him to give a final speech and submit a letter ending his tenure as a third-term Republican from Millsboro, effective immediately.

Five months after a night of boozing and feuding in which Atkins tried to show what a big shot he was -- by flaunting his legislative ID card during a traffic stop in Ocean City, Md., by trying to wheedle a Millsboro cop into letting him talk to the chief while being booked for a fight with his wife, and later by badgering the Attorney General's Office and judges for leniency -- he was a no shot.

"I regretfully will be submitting my resignation to the House of Representatives," Atkins said, choking up more and more as he went along. "I thought this was a fight we could win, but it just didn't turn out that way."

The House chamber, where the comings and goings normally are as free-flowing as a romper room full of atomized pre-schoolers, was in lockdown while Atkins spoke.

Capitol Police officers with side arms were stationed at the doors. Access to the floor was restricted almost exclusively to members, staff and the press -- along with Heather A. Atkins, his wife, and Charles M. Oberly III, the former Democratic attorney general who is his lawyer. Others, even former Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith, who left barely two weeks ago, were relegated to the gallery above.

Furthermore, two Capitol Police officers accompanied John Atkins wherever he went in Legislative Hall, although it was hard to figure out the reason for the protection. The only one there with a record of violence was the guy they were guarding.

John and Heather Atkins both were wearing black, suitable for a funeral, or if not a funeral, perhaps a frontier hanging. Atkins, who is 36, always did cultivate an air of cowboy rakishness with a relish for rough justice, like the time he suggested on a radio talk show that it might be a good idea for Delaware to put its prisoners on chain gangs.

Atkins was not as perky when justice was applied to him. Oberly said Atkins finally decided to resign because his fellow representatives were on a trajectory to move from the prospect of censure to expulsion for what he did during his spree in the early morning hours of Oct. 29 and for largely trying to cover it up, even submitting a misleading affidavit to the House Ethics Committee.

"John didn't want to put the House through it," Oberly said. "He made a decision that was in the best interest of everybody."

Oberly, however, avoided any mention of why the House was on the verge of having the two-thirds super majority -- 28 out of 41 votes -- for expulsion.

What happened was, within the last several days, the House leadership learned there was a teen-age babysitter, hired to watch the Atkins' children, in the home when the couple had its fight, and Atkins allegedly coerced the babysitter into silence.

It had the whiff of another crime to it, this alleged meddling with a possible witness, and House defenders who had been sticking with Atkins began melting away.

State Rep. Richard C. Cathcart, the new Republican majority leader who signed onto the censure resolution initiated by Wayne Smith, said he would have introduced an expulsion resolution himself if Atkins had not resigned, as Cathcart asked him to do late Monday.

"The direction it was heading was not favorable to Rep. Atkins, and I think perhaps he understood that," Cathcart said.

The majority leader was magnanimous on the floor, though. "We wish John and Heather the best as they begin their journey to get their life back together," he said.

That journey is to be a mystery for now. Oberly asked for privacy for the couple -- even though he could not give assurances that Atkins would not turn around and re-enter public life by trying to get on the ballot for the special election, which must be held within 41 days to fill his seat.

"I have no idea what John is going to do," Oberly said.

Atkins himself said nothing beyond his remarks on the floor. Much of his farewell was reserved for thanking his soon-to-be-ex-colleagues -- to such a degree that one legislator wondered in a snide side comment whether Atkins though he was getting an Academy Award?

It did not go unnoticed that Atkins did not thank any Democratic representatives. It was one last shot for the road. Atkins was Atkins to the end.