Posted: Jan. 16, 2007
CLEANING UP JOHN ATKINS
By Celia Cohen
Too much probably has happened for state Rep. John C. Atkins to get whitewashed, but there certainly seems to be a concerted effort to cover over the cracks.
From Ocean City, Md., to Atkins' home town of Millsboro, to Legislative Hall in Dover, a lot of horses and a lot of men are trying to put this Humpty Dumpty together again.
It is part of the halo effect that goes with being a legislator. At least in the nursery rhyme, Humpty was a good egg.
For Atkins, R-Probation, it is not just the power, privileges and prestige of his legislative status at stake, and not just his legislative paycheck of $42,000 a year, but also his legislative pension.
Lawmakers qualify for the General Assembly's retirement plan after five years in office. Atkins was elected in 2002, so if he sticks through this year, he will get his pension. The minimum payout would be slightly more than $300 a month when Atkins, who is 36 years old, turns 62, according to the state pension office.
Beyond some bad press, there have been little or no consequences for Atkins.
Not from the criminal justice system. For Atkins' late-night fight with his wife Heather in October, he was sentenced to probation and a first offenders' domestic-violence program, with his record to be expunged if he stays out of trouble for a year. After his court appearance, the outgoing attorney general came calling, concerned that Atkins' treatment was not too hard, not too soft, but just right.
Not from Ocean City. The police there have sluiced Atkins and his legislative identification card back to Delaware. The chief says her officer was within the bounds of his discretion in not arresting Atkins for speeding or drunken driving during a traffic stop hours before the domestic dispute.
"The officer did not use the person's standing to decide what he was going to do or not do," Chief Bernadette DiPino told WGMD News Radio 92.7 in Sussex County.
Not from Millsboro. The police report on Atkins is off limits. Chief John K. Murphy II responded to Delaware Grapevine's inquiry about it this way: "Your request for access to records that may be held by the Millsboro Police Department are not public records and are not available for any inspection or copying by the public."
Not from committee assignments. Atkins' fellow Republicans, who run the House of Representatives, knew they could not leave him as the chair of the Corrections Committee, not while the Corrections Department was supervising his probation and also incidentally employing his wife. Instead of punishing him, though, they did him a favor.
Atkins was not deprived of a committee chair. He was not given one that nobody wanted. He was given a plum, the better to rehabilitate him.
Atkins has the gavel for the Veterans Affairs Committee, the focus for 81,000 voting veterans who have the clout to have their own cemetery and their own elder home.
It is such a coveted panel that 17 of the 41 representatives have squeezed onto it, including Republican Speaker Terry R. Spence, Republican Majority Whip Clifford G. "Biff" Lee and Democratic Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan. The more lightly-regarded Corrections Committee has five members.
Why this assignment? "His wife doesn't work for Veterans Affairs," Spence said. "We're trying to help him. We felt he has a lot of veterans in his district, and he's always been very supportive of veterans."
Atkins apparently figured he could escape this episode by the hair of his chinny-chin-chin by angling to make it a one-day story. He issued a press release the day of his arrest in Millsboro and was on WGMD the next morning, his wife in tow, to apologize and portray himself as a stand-up guy who momentarily lapsed.
It preserved him long enough to be re-elected the next week, and it might have preserved him further if he had not been caught misleading the public by insisting on WGMD, "There was no alcohol involved," and by pretending that Ocean City never happened.
It is enough to wonder whether Atkins' account of his dust-up with Heather -- he says all he did was grab her arm -- would be confirmed by the Millsboro police report, but he steadfastly has refused to release it, and the police have backed him up. Delaware Grapevine recently asked the Attorney General's Office to arrange for the report to be made public and is waiting for a reply.
The House Ethics Committee still is left to deal with Atkins. It is chaired by Republican Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith and consists of the five House leaders, three Republicans and two Democrats. It held its first meeting Tuesday, the same day as a scrawny protest of perhaps a half-dozen people assembled outside of Legislative Hall with a smattering of signs, such as, "Atkins, Step Down, Shame."
The Ethics Committee met in private for an hour and 20 minutes, without Atkins, and afterwards Smith offered no clues about what it plans to do or how long it plans to do it.
The Ethics Committee probably wishes this sorry tabloid tale would go away, as every other authority sucked into it has. Instead, the escapade seems to be taking on a life of its own. Even in this news desert of a state, there were seven news outlets staking out the committee room.
In Legislative Hall, the saying is, this story has legs. It has more than legs. By now, it has a whole motor pool.