A freshman lawmaker being busted for cocaine possession wasn't exactly what Speaker John A. Boehner was hoping to deal with this week.
The challenge for the Ohio Republican — who has shown leniency to Florida Republican Rep. Trey Radel so far — is to contain the damage amid the unseemly details of Radel's Oct. 29 arrest and to square his light touch in this case with his past pronouncements of having little tolerance for ethical lapses.
Radel pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of cocaine Wednesday in D.C. Superior Court, promising to seek treatment for his addiction so he can “continue serving this country.”
That seems to be the plan for Radel, who has reportedly scheduled a news conference for 10:30 p.m. Wednesday in Florida, and GOP leadership isn't standing in his way.
“Members of Congress should be held to the highest standards, and the alleged crime will be handled by the courts,” said a spokesman for Boehner. “Beyond that, this is between Rep. Radel, his family, and his constituents.”
Radel had scheduled a meeting with Boehner before news of his charge went public Tuesday, but the two men did not meet until after the story broke. Boehner and Radel huddled at about 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, according to the speaker’s office.
Leadership doesn't seem inclined to punish Radel by removing him from his committee assignments — something sources say Boehner would have done in 2007 as minority leader if former Republican Reps. John Doolittle of California and Rick Renzi of Arizona had not stepped down in light of alleged ethics violations. Other Republicans, such as Reps. Mark Souder of Indiana and Chris Lee of New York, quickly resigned amid tawdry scandals of their own — and Boehner was happy to see them go.
The speaker seems to be making a distinction between substance abuse issues and other ethical violations.
Asked why this case was different from other ethics violations where Boehner has shown little sympathy, a senior GOP leadership aide said, “This case seems to be viewed more as an addiction or substance abuse issue, like when then-Rep. Patrick Kennedy rammed a barricade with his car in 2006."
Indeed, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., told Roll Call on Wednesday that “illnesses are illnesses."
“All of us recognize that addictions are illnesses,” he said.
Freshman Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., told Roll Call that he thought the speaker’s decision was “spot on."
"This is between him, his constituents and his family,” Mullin said. “Really, I don’t even think it’s appropriate for me to even comment on it.”
Another Oklahoma Republican, Tom Cole, offered a similar sentiment, telling Roll Call that whether Radel resigns is not his decision.
“He’s got enough challenges right now without people making his life more difficult,” Cole said. “What he does next is probably going to be as much a personal as it is a political decision.”
But not every member was so forgiving.
Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, indicated that Radel should step down.
“It seems like it’d be awfully difficult to continue,” Burgess said. “Seems like it would be hard.”
Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., said, “The safe answer, of course, is that it’s up to his district.”
“But that said, I do believe there is a higher responsibility, particularly for federal office,” Rigell said. “It seems to me he must put first what’s best for his district, and I would think that would mean someone who could devote full time to this without the burden of what he’s going through.”
Perhaps the most damning indictment came from the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Melanie Sloan.
Sloan noted — as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., did Tuesday night — that Radel had voted to make drug-testing a condition for receiving food stamps.
“Why is it more acceptable for a Republican member of Congress to use drugs than it is for someone on food stamps?" Sloan asked. "They’re both on the public doles.”
Pressed about whether Radel should be punished for an addiction problem, Sloan was unsympathetic.
“Oh please," Sloan said. "He should resign. The Republican Conference has no sympathy whatsoever for low-level drug offenders.”
Under House rules, the Ethics Committee is obligated to “empanel an investigative subcommittee to review the allegations” within 30 days of an indictment or charge. The House Ethics Manual notes that some action is required whenever a member is charged with criminal conduct, regardless of whether it’s a misdemeanor or felony.
The Ethics panel was silent Wednesday — Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, told Roll Call that it’d be “way inappropriate” for him “to say anything one way or the other” — and it only has one more meeting scheduled for this year, in December.
Another Ethics Committee member, who spoke on background because committee members are not permitted to comment on matters that could come before the panel, said the most likely outcome would be for the panel to concur with the court actions taken against Radel and offer no further repercussions.
On Wednesday, Judge Robert S. Tignor sentenced Radel to one year of probation, with some supervision, and a $250 fine for the misdemeanor possession charge.
Through confidential sources and investigators, police learned that Radel had on several occasions purchased cocaine for personal use, and also on some occasions shared it with others, according to court documents.
The 37-year-old was arrested on Oct. 29, when he met an acquaintance, with whom he’d previously used cocaine, for dinner at a Dupont Circle restaurant. His pal was accompanied by an undercover officer.
Over the course of the meal, Radel told the pair that he had some cocaine at his D.C. apartment and invited them back to use it with him. They declined, but the undercover officer said he had 3.5 grams of cocaine — commonly known as an eight ball — that he would sell to Radel for $250.
After dinner, Radel handed over the cash outside the restaurant and followed the men to the undercover officer’s car, where he was handed a package. When he stepped out of the vehicle, federal agents were waiting. Radel dropped the package on the street and was arrested at about 10 p.m.