Trey Radel: From lawmaker to lawbreaker

U.S.  Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fl., pleaded guilty last week to cocaine possession and says he plans to take a leave of absence from his job.
U.S. Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fl., pleaded guilty last week to cocaine possession and says he plans to take a leave of absence from his job.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP

When the good people of southwest Florida elected Trey Radel last year to represent them in Washington, they probably didn’t expect him to be doing so from Room 314 of D.C. Superior Court.

There the first-term Republican congressman stood one morning last week, his shoulders hunched, his hands clasped in front of him, awaiting his sentence from Judge Robert Tignor for cocaine possession. He was just a few blocks from the marble corridors of power but a world away, in a windowless room with threadbare carpet, frayed brown fabric on the walls and some stained acoustic ceiling tiles.

“Your Honor, I apologize for what I’ve done,” Radel said. “In life, I’ve hit a bottom where I realize I need help. … I am so sorry to be here. I know I let my constituents down, my country down and most importantly my family, my wife and my 2-year-old, who doesn’t know it yet.”

But Radel’s actions suggest that he was mostly sorry he got caught — and that the 37-year-old self-described “hip-hop conservative” was trying to make the embarrassment go away as quickly as possible. His statement late Tuesday suggested that he made a one-time mistake: “I struggle with the disease of alcoholism, and this led to an extremely irresponsible choice.” Before Radel entered his guilty plea, however, the prosecutor described how the defendant had on several occasions purchased, possessed and used cocaine.

Radel’s attorney, David Schertler, said it would be “completely appropriate” to give the lawmaker six months of unsupervised probation rather than the maximum six months in prison. “As you know, he is a member of Congress, recently elected,” Schertler explained.

Incredibly, the prosecutors agreed with this request, saying that an unknown person without a record would get a similar sentence. But that’s the point: Radel is a public figure, and he broke the laws he’s tasked with writing. Tignor gave the lawmaker 12 months’ probation with some supervision.

Radel isn’t Rob Ford, the Toronto mayor who jokes about his substance abuse. He’s not even Marion Barry, who blamed his drug arrest on others. Yet Radel acted Wednesday as though the most important thing were his job, not his recovery. He said in his statement in court that he planned to “continue serving this country.” His lawyer made only vague reference to plans to do inpatient treatment later. Treatment is difficult, Schertler said, because Radel, “based on his job, spends part of his time in Washington and part with his family in Florida.” More than 12 hours later, in a late-night news conference, Radel announced that he is taking a leave of absence to seek inpatient treatment.

When Radel arrived at the courthouse, three satellite trucks and about 10 TV cameras were waiting for him. As reporters converged on the defendant, Schertler shoved Fox News’ Chad Pergram. “David, calm down,” Radel told him. Awaiting him in Room 314 were 30 journalists.

In the matter of United States v. Henry J. Radel 3d., Schertler was eager to be done. “Mr. Radel does want to accept that (plea ) offer,” he said. “We would ask for sentencing today.”

“Let’s take this one step at a time,” Tignor suggested.

The prosecutor described what happened on Oct. 29: Radel and an acquaintance, with whom he had on “several previous occasions used cocaine,” met for dinner at a Dupont Circle restaurant, where Radel agreed to buy 3.5 grams of cocaine for $250 from an undercover cop. Radel paid $260 (it wasn’t clear whether this was a tip or the congressman didn’t have correct change). When he got out of the cop’s car, federal agents approached and the congressman at first dropped the bag of cocaine, but then invited the agents up to his apartment, where he presented them with a vial of cocaine he had purchased earlier.

“What did you believe you were purchasing?” Tignor asked.

“A drug. Cocaine,” Radel replied.

Tignor asked whether he bought it “knowingly and intentionally.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

Schertler offered the usual bromides about addiction being a “disease” and a “lifelong battle” and about how this “unfortunate incident” could become “a very positive one” for his client.

Outside the courtroom, reporters chased Radel down the stairs and outside to a waiting Honda Pilot. Schertler blocked reporters, and the lawmaker, escorted by armed marshals, ignored questions about whether he would resign.

In the melee, a reporter tripped over a concrete pillar and fell to the pavement. Radel, nearly at a run, paused to see that she got up, then resumed his rush to transform himself from lawbreaker back to lawmaker.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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