WASHINGTON -- Late on a Tuesday evening, at a bistro that serves $11 mojitos, the congressman and the undercover officer talked about cocaine.
They talked about how much the congressman would have to pay for it. They talked about the quality of the drug for sale. Finally, they made a deal: $250 for 3.5 grams, an amount generally bought for personal use.
Outside, in a car, the drug and money changed hands. And then, suddenly, there were feds outside the vehicle.
Before that moment, Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., had built a remarkable double life in Washington — and built it in record time.
He had been in Congress just 10 months. But he already had made a name in the House as an energetic and media-savvy freshman, willing to battle party elders to cut spending.
And, in the same 10 months, he also had become connected to the city’s drug trade: Court documents say he bought cocaine on several occasions. Radel, it turned out, had managed to attract the attention of the Capitol press corps and the Drug Enforcement Administration before Congress even took its Thanksgiving break.
With that purchase on Oct. 29 in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, Radel could no longer keep his two lives separate.
On Wednesday morning, the 37 year-old Radel pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug-possession count in D.C. Superior Court. He was sentenced to a year’s probation, and will undergo drug counseling and treatment in Florida.
"I am so sorry to be here," Radel said in court Wednesday. "I have let my constituents, my country and my family down. I want to come out of this stronger and I intend to do that, to be a better man, a better husband and continue serving this country."
He gave no indication that he planned to resign.
No special treatment
Prosecutors on Wednesday said that Radel was not given special leniency because of his office. He was charged with a misdemeanor, they said, because District of Columbia law classifies simple possession of any drug — except PCP — as a misdemeanor. If prosecutors believed that Radel intended to re-sell the drug, that would have been a felony charge.
But they did not. Charging documents say that Radel bought cocaine "for his personal use and also, on occasion, [to] share it with others."
And William Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said that Radel was given the same punishment as many other people facing the same misdemeanor charge. In, 2012, Miller said, nearly 700 people were charged with misdemeanor cocaine possession in the District of Columbia.
"Only a small fraction received any jail time as a result," Miller wrote in an email.
Former TV anchor
Radel is a former TV anchor and conservative radio host, who grew up in Cincinnati as the son of a funeral-home director. He is married to former TV journalist Amy Wegmann Radel. They have a young son.
Radel won election by a wide margin last fall, taking a seat left open when longtime Rep. Connie Mack, a Republican, ran for the Senate.
That was the start of his public life in Washington: a hyper, ambitious 10 months in which Radel sought ways to stand out in Capitol Hill’s crowd. He focused on social media, filling his Twitter feed with short video clips, rapid-fire jokes and allusions to old-school hip-hop.
No time went to waste. Radel made videos while riding Washington’s commuter rail, or walking in the Capitol’s tunnels, focusing the camera on himself as he talked. Even the flights back home to his district — traditionally, the deadest and quietest hours in a congressman’s life — became, for Radel, a branded, shared, media experience.
"IMPROMPTU TOWNHALL. Boarding plane. If wifi & battery hold up-twitter townhall," he wrote on Twitter October 24. "CAVEAT- let’s NOT talk politics or policy." What followed was a free-flowing discussion that ranged from his favorite brunch places in Washington (Radel recommended Afterwords Cafe and Grill, in Dupont Circle), his favorite drinks ("Ketel Soda 2 limes or martini up blue chs olives"), and the oddest items in the SkyMall catalogue.
In the House itself, Radel voted often with conservatives: he voted "yes," for instance, on a broader bill that would allow states to drug-test food-stamp recipients.
But the highlight of Radel’s career so far was a fight against a silly-sounding but very real federal institution: the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center.
This center gives out grants to sheep researchers, sheep-rancher associations and young shearers-in-training. It is a beloved project of lawmakers from sheep-heavy states. But this past summer, Radel stood up before the House to argue that, at a cost of $1 million or $1.5 million, it was too expensive to keep.
"It is for sheep shearing. Sheep shearing. Sheep shearing," Radel said. "An industry that basically goes back to the Old Testament. Moses was sheep shearing."
It was a small thing to fight about. But a congressman — especially a freshman — is not made for big things. In this case, Radel’s fight against this small program was opposed by veteran members from both parties, who argued that the sheep industry needed the money.
The House voted. As the tallies flashed up on the electronic score board visible from the floor, it was close: 86 for defunding, 90 against. The 155-136, then 212-210. The amendment needed 218 votes to pass.
"Radel, watch it. The board might get ya," Radel recalled Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., telling him, meaning that he might never get to 218.
Ryan was wrong. In Radel’s office, his staff took pictures of the television screen with their cellphones, capturing C-SPAN at the moment he secured his 218th vote. "The amendment is adopted," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, presiding over the chamber. The eventual tally was 235 to 192 (some members switched their votes to vote "yes," after it became apparent the amendment would pass).
"That’s why I love what I do," Radel said later, recalling the experience in a recent interview with The Washington Post. "At some time, we have to start making the adult decisions here."
He said that on Nov. 14. Two weeks after the bust in Dupont Circle. At that time, Radel gave no indication — even to his own leaders — that his hidden life in Washington had begun to threaten his public one.
The bust came about, federal law-enforcement officials said Wednesday, after they stumbled across Radel by accident. As part of a broader investigation, they arrested a drug dealer. The dealer said he had a congressman for a client: court papers say Radel had purchased and used cocaine on "several occasions."
So the FBI and DEA set a trap.
On October 29, Radel, an acquaintance and the undercover agent met at a Washington restaurant, which law-enforcement officials identified as Circa, at Connecticut Avenue and Q Street NW (a manager at that restaurant declined to comment on Wednesday). Court documents say Radel first invited the two others to go back to his apartment to share cocaine he had already bought.
But the undercover officer demurred. He didn’t want to use. He wanted to sell. Eventually, Radel agreed to buy. For some reason, he overpaid: court papers say he handed over $260, which was $10 more than they had agreed on.
After the deal was done, the federal agents approached Radel. Then, court papers say, he asked the officers to come to his apartment to discuss the incident more. They did. Once there, court papers said, Radel retrieved another vial of cocaine and handed it over to the investigators.
He was not arrested, but was warned that he would likely be charged.
"I hit a bottom, and I realize I need help," Radel said in court on Wednesday. In an earlier statement, issued Tuesday, he blamed "the disease of alcoholism" for his poor judgment.
After the bust, it appears, Radel still tried to keep the two sides of his Washington life separate for as long as he could.
For three weeks afterward, he said nothing to House leadership, according to a senior GOP aide. As recently as last Friday, he continued to vote, and continued to fire off tweets bashing the health-care law backed by President Barack Obama.
Meeting with Boehner
On Tuesday, finally, Radel requested a meeting with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, the GOP aide said. But, by the time they actually met in the afternoon, reports about Radel’s case were already out in the news.
There is no House rule that says Radel must resign. And, for now, his fellow Republicans have not publicly pressured him to go. On Wednesday, still, his fellow legislators expressed somber puzzlement about the man they’d served alongside.
"I hope that he makes the right decision for him, for his family and his district," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who said Radel had called her on Tuesday night to talk about the case. "I don’t presume what is best for him. Other members have gotten in trouble. . .I’m careful not to cast stones, because I live in a glass house, as all of us do."
If Radel completes probation, he won’t have a conviction on his record, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. Even if he remains in Congress, there is still a chance that his one biggest legislative victory could slip away. The Sheep Center could survive.
Its fate is being decided right now, in a conference committee drawn from both the House and Senate. Radel had been trying to lobby that committee to keep his amendment, and de-fund the center.
Now, he seems less likely to succeed.
"Cocaine. Holy mackerel," said Glen Fisher, the Texas sheep rancher who is chairman of the federal sheep center’s board.
In a telephone call on Tuesday evening, Fisher was learning that the chief advocate for defunding his institution — the energetic, ambitious congressman who wanted to change the way Washington worked — now had other, bigger problems.
"Well," Fisher said. "That’s too bad."
Washington Post staff writers Ed O’Keefe, Dana Hedgpeth and Aaron Blake contributed to this report.