Posted: April 19, 2007
By Celia Cohen
The state House Republicans blinked and called off a press conference Thursday, about an hour and 40 minutes before they planned to publicize unsavory details about John C. Atkins, their ex-colleague who has them fretting that he could gum up their chances to keep his seat Republican in a special election.
The press conference was billed as the high road -- a release of information that the public has the right to know, the back-up documentation that led the House Ethics Committee to conclude that Atkins had brought the chamber into disrepute with his drinking, driving, domestic violence and efforts to dodge the consequences.
It was canceled amid skepticism that it really was the low road -- a political play to scare voters away from Atkins, who has stoked speculation that he could be a write-in candidate, potentially drawing enough Republican votes away from Gregory A. Hastings for Democrat Lynn R. Bullock to win the special election May 5 in the central Sussex County district.
Atkins' campaign signs have popped up to the consternation of the Republicans, who lost a Brandywine Hundred special election last weekend and could see their House majority clipped to a precarious 21-20 if they lose this one, too.
The notice canceling the press conference sustained the high-minded tone, saying the reason was "concerns [that] arose about whether the proper procedures were being observed, connected to the release of information" and promising that the Ethics Committee would be convened to resolve it.
"I think this [releasing the information] is something that is the right thing to do. People can take it or turn it a hundred different ways. I'm going to move forward based on what I think is right, plus I'm getting legal advice to do it," said state Rep. Richard C. Cathcart, the Republican majority leader who chairs the Ethics Committee.
Out of the public eye, between the time the press conference was announced Wednesday afternoon and called off the next morning, there was furious maneuvering.
Some of the pressure to cancel came from Charles M. Oberly III, the Democratic former attorney general who is Atkins' lawyer.
Oberly questioned the House Republicans' motives, which he said came from "a likelihood the seat could change hands," and warned they could be on chancy legal ground, releasing investigatory documents that were not only confidential but concerned someone no longer under their jurisdiction.
"Cooler heads should prevail. John's out of the General Assembly now," Oberly said. "They decided maybe it's not the battle they want to get involved in. There are issues out there about what they can release."
Objections also came from Democratic Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan, who was included up until now by the Republicans in the Ethics Committee's actions. The committee has five members, the Republican speaker, majority leader and majority whip and the Democratic minority leader and minority whip.
"I'm not opposed to releasing information that can be released, but we don't release information without the Ethics Committee getting involved, just because John Atkins is putting up signs in Sussex County," Gilligan said.
There also was said to be a heated disagreement within the House Republican leadership about the appropriateness of the press conference, with Cathcart arguing in favor of it and Speaker Terry R. Spence opposing it.
Spence did not return a telephone call for comment, but Cathcart said, "The consensus was, rather than have this be a controversial issue, let's call it [press conference] off and proceed with the procedural process."
In or out of the legislature, Atkins continues to be a rolling crisis for the House Republicans. Oberly insists his client is out of politics, but the tease goes on.
"John's not running for office. He's bemused and somewhat flattered that people are putting up their old [campaign] signs. People feel disenfranchised," Oberly said.
"He's not going to be making calls to tell people to take their signs down, either."