Posted: March 23, 2007
OFF WITH HIS HEAD
By Celia Cohen
Standing outside the closed doors of the House Republican caucus room on Thursday was something like waiting outside the Bastille and wondering whether the head of state Rep. John C. Atkins, R-Probation, would roll out.
It did not, but it is probably a matter of time.
The state House of Representatives was an angry place on the day that the Republican majority caucus and the Democratic minority caucus were presented with a proposal from the Ethics Committee, consisting of the chamber's bipartisan leadership, to punish Atkins for throwing around his influence with police during a traffic stop in Ocean City, Md., and an arrest for fighting with his wife in their Millsboro home.
The Ethics Committee wants the House to pass a resolution censuring Atkins. The resolution also would take away the legislative license plate and identification card he flourished to show who he was, make him get counseling, and fine him $550, an amount equivalent to a fine for the drunken-driving conviction he never got.
From numerous accounts about the closed meetings, both caucuses reacted with fury because many members did not think the penalties were severe enough. Among Democrats, the response was almost universal.
Republican Speaker Terry R. Spence called this sorry episode "one of the roughest times" he experienced in his 20 years of presiding over the House.
A rising number of representatives want Atkins gone. The insistence was running so high in the Republican caucus that the leaders -- Spence along with Majority Leader Richard C. Cathcart and Majority Whip Clifford G. "Biff" Lee -- left the meeting to track down Atkins, who was awaiting the outcome in his office, and ask him to consider resigning. After they escorted him back to the caucus, he was asked again.
Atkins is not leaving, however, at least not yet. Before much longer, the choice may not be his.
A bipartisan core of representatives is working behind the scenes to drum up the votes to expel him. It would take a two-thirds majority -- 28 out of the 41 House members -- for expulsion. The group appears to be anywhere from five votes to two votes away.
The swelling resentment against Atkins comes primarily from new evidence about his cavalier sense of entitlement, information not known until about two weeks ago when the Ethics Committee released its investigative report.
The report, issued March 7, went beyond what has become well-known about the Ocean City traffic stop, in which Atkins skated away from speeding and drunken-driving charges, and the domestic-violence arrest, for which he was sentenced to probation by the Family Court.
The report was written by Battle R. Robinson, the House Republican attorney who is a retired Family Court judge, and William G. Bush IV, the House Democratic lawyer since named counsel to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.
House members were stunned to learn that Atkins disobeyed the Ocean City police, who let him go once he found a driver to take him home, by getting behind the wheel after crossing the state line.
In addition, members were outraged that Atkins filed a misleading affidavit with the Ethics Committee by asserting that he was asked by the Ocean City police to show his legislative identification card. The police told the committee's legal staff that Atkins had the card ready for them. Atkins later acknowledged the police account was correct.
It was enough for some members to want Atkins turned over to the attorney general on a perjury charge -- particularly because the affidavit was only three lines long, making it unlikely Atkins did not realize what he was signing. Atkins' entire statement under oath read:
"1. I was in Ocean City, Md., on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006, when I was stopped for speeding by the Ocean City Police Department.
"2. Upon request of the Ocean City police officer, I produced my legislative ID.
"3. I was released without any charges being filed against me in Ocean City, Md."
Despite the building revolt in the ranks, the House leadership is somewhat hamstrung about what it can do, because its resolution for censure and the other sanctions was accepted by Atkins and Charles M. Oberly III, the former Democratic attorney general who is his lawyer.
Still, it has become evident that the resolution does not have a simple majority of 21 votes needed to pass. A substitute resolution for expulsion likely would force the Ethics Committee to reconvene and offer Atkins his right to a disciplinary hearing -- prolonging this misadventure that has become all-consuming and virtually squelching any other work in the House.
Beyond being upset and frustrated, representatives say they are exhausted, sleepless and drained by talking about nothing else. They say they are embarrassed, too.
It made for a long day in Dover on Thursday, the last of the three-day legislative week, and an historic one. Lawyers who researched the record could find no precedent for a disciplinary matter coming to the floor. In a flurry of ethics cases in the 1980s, two in the Senate and two in the House, all were short-circuited when the legislators resigned.
The House Democrats met in closed caucus for about an hour and a half on Atkins, the House Republicans for about three hours. By the time the House went back into session so the leadership officially could introduce the censure resolution, the staff had been sent home and most of the representatives had left, too.
Senate Secretary Bernard J. Brady, who was still in Legislative Hall, was recruited to handle the audio recording. House Republican Attorney John F. Brady turned on the lights and passed out copies of the resolution.
The chamber was a dim and somewhat forlorn place. Only 10 representatives were present. There were the five leaders -- Spence, Cathcart and Lee, and Democratic Majority Leader Robert F. Gilligan and Minority Whip Helene M. Keeley -- plus Republican Reps. Donald A. Blakey, Deborah D. Hudson, William R. "Bobby" Outten, Donna D. Stone and Pamela J. Thornburg.
It took about four minutes. People blanched when they saw that the legislation was designated House Resolution 13 -- as if they needed a numeric reminder of what a curse this scandal is.