Posted: March 7, 2007
HOUSE LEADERSHIP SLAMS STATE REP. JOHN ATKINS
By Celia Cohen
The state House leadership is showing it has no intention of letting Rep. John C. Atkins get away with the tricks he tried, pulling strings and throwing around his influence, in two states with two police departments in the dark hours of his own early Mischief Night last year.
The leaders, three Republicans and two Democrats constituting the Ethics Committee, unanimously have charged Atkins with bringing the state House of Representatives into disrepute, based on a staff investigation into what he did in the early morning hours of Oct. 29 during a traffic stop in Ocean City, Md., and a fight with his wife Heather in their Millsboro home.
Atkins, a 36-year-old Republican whose stock in trade is country-boy charm, was only 10 days away from the election at the time of his escapades. He managed initially to hide much of what happened and win himself a third term, but it would not go away and led to an ethics investigation once the legislature convened in January.
The Ethics Committee's report, sent to all representatives and released Wednesday to the press, ran down all the sordid speculation that has been swirling around Atkins and found that the whispers and wild stories tended to be more truthful than he was.
The committee members found that Atkins did more than grab his wife's arm, as he has said, and that he tried to mislead their investigation in a sworn affidavit describing his actions.
The report gives the House leaders and the rest of the representatives an escape hole to separate themselves from Atkins, both to limit the damage on the chamber's reputation and the potential for damage to themselves the next time they face the voters at the polls.
It is an extraordinary episode in the history of the House, which has not faced a crisis in ethics since the early 1980s when two members were forced to resign in separate scandals. Disapproval for Atkins flowed from both parties.
"We as elected officials are held to a higher standard than the average citizen. John did not measure up on the night of Oct. 29," said House Minority Whip Clifford G. "Biff" Lee, a Laurel Republican who is a retired state trooper.
"As far as I'm concerned, according to the report, his behavior has hurt every one one of us," said state Rep. Peter C. Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat who is a retired state police captain.
There is no sign yet that Atkins is ready to hang his head. He has 20 days to respond to the report. "The real issue is, do we want to contest it? They'll apply some kind of sanction if we don't," said Charles M. Oberly III, a former Democratic attorney general who is Atkins' lawyer.
Under House rules, Atkins could face censure, reprimand, a fine, suspension, expulsion or any other penalty considered appropriate.
Oberly called the report something of a rush to judgment, hastily wrapped up because Republican Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith is resigning, effective Monday, to run a health care trade association and did not want to saddle the next majority leader, who is yet to be chosen.
"It's a little sloppy," Oberly said, adding that Atkins was not given the opportunity to address the committee. He did meet with the investigating staffers, however.
Despite Oberly's comments, it is hard to find anything in the committee's investigation left undone.
The investigation was conducted by Battle R. Robinson, the Republicans' attorney who is a retired Family Court judge, and William G. Bush IV, the Democrats' attorney who recently was named counsel to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.
In addition to Smith, who was the chair, the other members of the Ethics Committee are Biff Lee and Speaker Terry R. Spence for the Republicans and Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan and Minority Whip Helene M. Keeley for the Democrats.
The committee released a nine-page report about Atkins' conduct and a single-page "Statement of Alleged Violation" based on the report's conclusions that Atkins repeatedly used his office to try to get leniency from the Ocean City and Millsboro police departments.
Much of the committee's findings are well-known by now -- that Atkins tried to get the Ocean City police officers to go easy on him by showing his legislative identification card during a traffic stop for speeding and suspicion of drunken driving and that the Millsboro police arrested him hours later for offensive touching.
What is new is that Atkins played fast and loose with the Ocean City officers' order to find someone else to drive. The ride lasted only until he and his wife were back inside Delaware at Smitty McGee's bar in Fenwick Island, and then he took the wheel again.
What is also new is that Atkins tried to wriggle out of the arrest in Millsboro after he was taken to the police station by insisting on speaking to the police chief . Eventually the chief was called but did not speak to Atkins or stand in the way of the charge. Atkins later was sentenced to probation and a domestic-violence first offenders program, which will leave him with a clean record if he stays out of trouble for a year.
Most explosive yet, the report read: "Our investigation indicated that greater physical contact occurred than was described."
The report did not elaborate, but Oberly offered an explanation, saying, "There were scratches on John, and there was a piece of clothing that had a tear or rip, one of the pieces of her clothing. There was no blood, there were no cuts, there were no stitches. They got into an argument, and there was pushing and shoving."
Finally, the committee charged that Atkins filed a misleading affidavit by stating under oath that an Ocean City police officer asked him for his legislative identification card. Instead, in an interview with the House investigating attorneys, the officer said Atkins brought out the card on his own. Atkins later conceded to the attorneys it was so.
As stinging as the House leadership's criticism is, Atkins apparently remains undeterred, figuring the voters can be persuaded to forgive him by the next election, no matter what his colleagues do.
"He realizes it was a bad three or four hours of his life," Oberly said. "He'll be judged in the next 20 months on what he's done. He's out to be the best legislator he can."
Atkins tried to game the Ocean City police. He tried it with the Millsboro police. He tried it with the Ethics Committee. Why not the voters, too?