Law Makers Should Not Be Law Breakers
Below are accounts of two former State Representatives facing criminal charges when in office and one of their spouses, Andria Bennett, who is currently the State Representative for the 32nd District. Representative Bennett was recently charged with 3rd Degree Assault for striking her husband—former State Representative Brad Bennett. She might have had a good reason, but her charges weren’t dismissed.
The other former Representative is John Atkins who is the only legislator to face formal sanctions from a legislative ethics committee since 1986. The offences of both Atkins and the Bennett family include DUIs and domestic abuse which seem to be the most common infractions for legislators. John Atkins also attempted to use his position to inappropriately influence the police and other officials.
The rare action against John Atkins by the House Ethics Committee forced him to resign in 2007. Having resigned, the sanctions against him were eliminated. Atkins was originally elected as a Republican in 2002, but in 2008 he switched parties and won back his House seat running as a Democrat.
John Atkins served three more terms in the General Assembly as a Democrat. In both 2012 and 2014, he repeated offences similar to the charges he faced in 2007 and lost the election in 2014. The House Speaker removed Atkins from a Committee following the incident in 2012.
How can the public be reassured that law breakers won’t be able to continue to serve in the General Assembly? In retrospect, the 2007 sanctions against John Atkins should have prohibited him from running for office again. Perhaps that prohibition should include family members as well.
The unusual action of the House Ethics Committee in 2007 had mixed results. The Committee sanctions forced Atkins to resign. As a result of the Committee’s investigation, both the General Assembly and the public leaned much about Representative Atkin’s bad behavior.
However, as soon as he resigned, the House Resolution censuring him became null and void and John Atkins re-election made a mockery of the process.
These issues are documented below with links to articles and documents.
John Atkins—Only in Delaware
In 2002, John Atkins was originally elected as a Republican State Representative serving District 41. He resigned in March 2007, the same day he had been set to face ethics sanctions in the State House of Representatives. Below is a quote from Sussex County Online.
“The proposed sanctions facing Rep. Atkins were in response to a series of incidents that occurred in the early morning hours of Oct. 29th. Rep. Atkins and his wife Heather were stopped by Ocean City (MD) Police on suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI) shortly after leaving a nearby nightclub.
Despite a breath test that seemed to show a high blood alcohol content, the officers noted that Rep. Atkins was responsive, coherent and speaking clearly. The police decided not to cite him for DUI, but instructed him to refrain from driving and to secure a ride home.
A House Ethics Committee investigation revealed that Rep. Atkins did get a ride from a friend, but resumed driving after crossing the state line into Delaware. Later that morning, Rep. Atkins was arrested at his Millsboro home on a charge of “offensive touching” following a physical altercation with his wife.
The committee’s investigation also found that Rep. Atkins used his legislative identification card in an attempt to gain leniency from the Ocean City police officers and that he made several attempts to speak with the Millsboro Police Chief in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid a domestic violence charge from being brought against him.
The committee concluded Rep. Atkins had violated the House of Representatives’ rules of conduct and that his actions had brought the institution “into disrepute.” In a letter to the committee, Rep. Atkins accepted the findings and admitted his wrong-doing:
As a result, the five-member Ethics Committee – which consists of the chamber’s Republican and Democratic leadership – filed House Resolution 13. The measure contained five specific sanctions:
1. Rep. Atkins would have had to surrender his legislative identification card and license plate.
2. Rep. Atkins would have been ineligible to chair any House committees during the 144th General Assembly.
3. Rep. Atkins would have paid a fine in the form of a of a $550 contribution to Delaware Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD).
4. Rep. Atkins would have been mandated to successfully complete the counseling ordered by Family Court as part of his domestic violence plea agreement.
5. Rep. Atkins would have also been required to undergo an alcohol evaluation and would have been required to comply with any recommendations based on that evaluation, including treatment or counseling.
With the resignation, HR 13 will be stricken and no additional action against Rep. Atkins is contemplated.”
This sounds like an appropriate outcome. However, this was not the end of John Atkins legislative career. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia”
“Although Atkins had resigned his seat as a Republican, he switched his party registration to Democrat. In the 2008 general election, now Democrat Atkins, won against Hastings who was occupying his old seat. As a Democrat he was re-elected twice more until losing his seat to Republican Richard Collins in the 2014 general election.”
His tenure as a Democratic legislator was also disrupted by multiple incidents of misbehavior leading to his 2014 election defeat. Here’s an AP report from March 2012.
“A Democratic lawmaker who sent an angry email to state police after being pulled over by a trooper for speeding has been removed from his seat on the public safety and homeland security committee.
House Speaker Bob Gilligan said Thursday that he removed Rep. John Atkins of Millsboro as vice-chair of the committee at Atkins’ request.
Atkins refused to discuss his January email to a state police captain, in which he described the officer who stopped him in derogatory terms. The officer gave Atkins a verbal warning but no ticket. Atkins also suggested in the email that the next time he was ready to act on a bill affecting the state police, the officer who stopped him should be sent to Legislative Hall to lobby on behalf of the police.”
Two years later in June 2014, the News Journal reported this story:
“A Delaware Family Court administrator has ordered Rep. John Atkins of Millsboro to stay away from his wife and two sons after she told the court she feared his “temper and erratic behavior.”
Family Court Commissioner Andrew K. Southmayd in Sussex County granted the protective order Monday quickly after Heather Atkins requested it. A June 13 hearing is scheduled on the matter. Court documents show John Atkins relinquished 17 firearms, most of them shotguns, to Millsboro police officers Monday evening after they took a court order requiring he do so to his home.”
“His temper is getting worse and I fear that if something is not done it will effect my safety,” Heather Atkins wrote in her petition for emergency protection. “I feel that he is not able to take the best interest of our children and put that first. I am afraid that the children are at risk due to his temper and erratic behavior.”
“She also described bouts of abusive and even violent behavior, saying she feared that her husband would harm her, the children and, on more than one occasion, himself.”
Losing his House seat in 2014 did not improve Atkins behavior. Here’s a follow-up from his Wikipedia page.
“Atkins has been “repeatedly accused of violence against women” and arrested multiple times for domestic assault. In August 2018, he pled guilty to misdemeanor assault and breach of release charges, and was sentenced to 22 days in prison along with one year of probation.”
This story includes multiple efforts by House leadership and committees to discipline Representative Atkins, but they weren’t effective. Delaware needs an ethics oversight structure which bars running for re-election once a reasonable standard has been exceeded.
Andria and Brad Bennett—Criminal and Family Matters
Andria Bennett was elected in 2012 to replace her husband, Brad Bennett, who had decided not to seek reelection after a second arrest for drunk driving where he served time in jail. Below is a December 2020 news report regarding the Bennett family:
“TV Delmarva’s Rob Petree was able to confirm that around 2 a.m. Sunday, December 13th, Delaware State Police were called to the home of State Rep. Andria Bennett in Dover for reports of a domestic dispute. According to the arrest warrant, when police arrived, they noticed her husband, former State Rep. Brad Bennett, was noticeably injured with blood running down the left side of his face.”
Representative Bennett was then arrested and charged with 3rd Degree Assault and later released on her own recognizance. At a December 28th hearing, the charges were not dismissed.
There have been multiple cases of members of the general assembly being arrested on criminal charges. Bennett’s is the most recent case following those of both her husband and John Atkins. These cases raise the issue of the need for ethics oversight to determine when criminal charges should prevent those accused from continuing to serve as legislators.
Andria Bennett is also the daughter of Newark-area state Representative John Viola and formerly served as a legislative aide to two state Senate Democrats. Her case raises issues of nepotism.