March 22, 2007

Atkins remains in House -- for now

Today's News Journal reports that the DE House Ethics Committee has recommended that embattled Rep. John Atkins be censured for his behavior/actions during a traffic stop which revealed Atkins' to have been driving while legally intoxicated. This afternoon, the Ethics Committee also recommended that Atkins be fined $550, prohibits him from using his legislative license plate and ID card, requires him to receive an evaluation for alcohol abuse, and forces him to be give up his committee chairmanships.

Atkins' attorney Charlie Oberly noted that his client did not wish a full hearing before the full House, as is his right. (He could have tried his case before the full House of Representatives.)

Delaware Watch's Dana Garrett posted last week that he believed Atkins' treatment by the House Ethics Committee was "not fair." He wrote:

Imagine you are charged with a crime and tried before a court of law. The police have done their investigation and the prosecution has been allowed to present its case. Then imagine that the Judge takes a short recess and comes back into the courtroom and pronounces you guilty and cites as the bases for his verdict affidavits you've signed, claims made by the police investigators and the testimony of the witnesses the prosecution used against you, but you never got an opportunity to rebut the evidence marshaled against you. Everyone—conservative or liberal—would be appalled at the transparent injustice of such a court procedure regardless of how compelling the prime facie evidence against you appeared to be.

In his comments, responding to one of my queries, he writes further:

He would request to appear before the committee to do what? If he and his attorney are not given the reports of the investigators in order to rebut them, requesting to appear before the committee would be meaningless. It would be an exercise in trying to guess what the evidence the committee is considering might be. That's hardly fair.

In said comments I asked Dana whether his beef was with how the House Ethics Committee procedures were designed, or whether Atkins actually got unfair treatment under the existing rules. He has not responded yet. (And, to be clear, I am not accusing Dana of "skipping out." I know he's a quite busy man.) But it seems Dana – in his desire to make the analogy between Atkins' Ethics Committee treatment and a typical criminal proceeding – is overlooking a vital factor. He notes that Atkins (and his attorney) didn't have an opportunity to address the "statement of facts" drawn up by the Ethics Committee's investigation. However, this "statement of facts" is akin to an indictment – not a judgment as Dana posits. And where does the accused have the opportunity to address an indictment? Not in a closed session with investigators and attorneys -- but in court. Dana concedes that Atkins (and his attorney) were shown the charges against him (he was permitted to make an initial written response) and this certainly is similar to standard [trial] proceedings where both parties have to be informed of all charges, witnesses and testimonies. But the key ingredient here is that House rules clearly give Atkins the opportunity to try his case in such a court: The full House of Representatives.

But, as noted at the beginning of this post, Atkins and his attorney did not wish to do this.

If Dana believes the existing House rules governing ethics are "unfair," that's certainly his right. But in my opinion, Atkins was treated not only within the rules of the House, but fairly, as well. Dana criticizes the House Ethics Committee stating that they could use a course in "Justice 101." But, as I noted above, with the analogy Dana makes to an actual criminal court proceeding, there's actually nothing out of line – "unfair" – about how the Committee treated Atkins. Their knowledge of "Justice 101," at least in terms of proper procedures, seems quite adequate to me.

Still, if what the News Journal reports is accurate, Atkins still yet may have his day in "court":

The matter may not be settled, though, because it may not be enough to satisfy some legislators.

There was talk Wednesday that some Democrats and Republicans might push for Atkins to be expelled when the resolution reaches the House floor, most likely on Tuesday.

Indeed. One such Rep. is Atkins' fellow downstater Pete Schwartzkopf who told WGMD radio's Dan Gaffney earlier today that "he'd go past censure and vote for Atkin's expulsion." In addition, WGMD's Maria Evans notes that Atkins has informed her that "what he did was, 'nothing compared to what other House members have done.'" As Maria asks, is this "... why the Ethics Committee is recommending censuring him and not going for expulsion"?

Posted by Hube at March 22, 2007 04:36 PM | TrackBack

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