U.S. Rep. Trey Radel is facing treatment today for alcoholism and substance abuse. Radel, who represents District 19 in Southwest Florida in Washington, D.C., pleaded guilty on Wednesday, Nov. 20 to a misdemeanor charge of possession of cocaine. He was sentenced to a year on probation and announced Thursday in a 15-minute press conference in his Cape Coral office that he was taking a leave of absence while he gets help for his problems. He planned to enter a rehab clinic in Naples, he said. He blamed alcoholism for using cocaine.
Radel, 37, whose sprawling congressional district includes Cape Coral, Fort Myers and much of Collier County, also includes close to half of Lehigh Acres. Voters in Precincts 4, 42, 50, 51, 52 and 58 are included in Radel's congressional district which is described as Fl. 19 South, which is generally south of Lee Boulevard.
Radel, a freshman congressman who went to Washington this past January and who has served 11 months in office, was charged with illegal cocaine possession last Tuesday after what a federal law enforcement official described as a "buy and bust" sting operation. He had been arrested as a suspect on Oct. 19 in the sting operation. But since that time and before the actual arrest, Radel's attorneys and representatives from the U.S. Justice Department, had been negotiating since mid-October. The probation was handed down by a U.S. federal judge.
His case could be taken up by the House's Ethics Committee and it could censure him as it has done on other occasions.
Radel expressed regret but made no mention concerning his political future, but said he had made an "extremely irresponsible choice" and had let down his family and his constituents. It was reported that he had been accused of possessing 3.5 grams of cocaine on Oct. 29, but he had not been arrested until last Tuesday.
When the news broke of the conservative Republican who had Tea Party backing, social media sites went viral with a majority of people leaving messages that Radel should resign from his seat.
Stories of his arrest spread throughout the Internet and were carried on all news channels including cable news networks. His press conference Wednesday night was covered by media from across the country.
Radel had sent out an email to The Citizen and other news outlets after the announcement of his arrest. It read:
"In facing this charge, I realize the disappointment my family, friends and constituents must feel. Believe me, I am disappointed in myself, and I stand ready to face the consequences of my actions.
"However, this unfortunate event does have a positive side. It offers me an opportunity to seek treatment and counseling. I know I have a problem and will do whatever is necessary to overcome it, hopefully setting an example for others struggling with this disease."
He blamed alcoholism for his problems. A Drug Enforcement Administration official said Radel had been arrested after buying cocaine from an undercover law enforcement officer. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release details of the case in his own name, said Radel was identified to authorities as a cocaine buyer by his suspected dealer, who had been previously arrested as part of a separate drug investigation led by a federal task force.
Radel could have been given a statutory maximum of six months in prison and a fine of $1,000, but instead probation was handed to the congressman. Radel had backed a bill giving judges' flexibility on drug sentencing, a GOP leadership aide confirmed last week.
Somewhat ironically, Radel was the cosponsor of HR 1695, Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, which would give judges more flexibility on sentencing in cases involving mandatory minimums. Radel has also supported a bill in the House to test those on food stamps for illegal drugs.
Local media outlets that carried the story early Tuesday night last week sought reaction from fellow GOP leaders in Southwest Florida, who mostly said Radel needed help and hoped he would seek it.
According to the Associated Press, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the allegations are a matter for the courts. He was quoted as saying through a spokesman, "Beyond that, this is between Rep. Radel, his family and his constituents."
Radel is not believed to have visited Lehigh in any official act as a congressman since the election. A few years before he ran for his congressional seat, he helped out in a political debate of local candidates at a program held at the Lehigh Senior High School. At the time he worked for WINK-TV as a news anchor.
He replaced former U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, who gave up the office to run unsuccessfully for U.S. senator against incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Radel was a conservative talk show host on Fox Radio 92.5 FM in Fort Myers for two years prior to running for the congressional office. His radio shows early in the mornings received mostly calls from conservatives who joined Radel in condemning President Obama and his administration.
Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott, a Republican, said it was "so disappointing" to hear the news Tuesday night.
"The news of Radel's involvement with drugs is disappointing, and I hope he regains control of his life for the sake of a beautiful two-year-old boy and his wife. Beyond that, Southwest Florida expects and deserves better in our representative," he said in an email to The Lehigh Acres Citizen.
Will Bronson, a Democrat, who has announced his candidacy to run against U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, who represents District 17, which includes generally residents north of Lee Blvd. in Lehigh, said he believed April Freeman of Cape Coral will be the main beneficiary of Radel's "indiscretions." She is the only Democrat so far who wants to unseat Radel in the next election, he said. Members of Congress only serve a two-year term.
When asked for his reaction to Radel being arrested and charged with possession of cocaine, Bronson said:
"You may remember that Foley (R), then Mahoney (D) lost their seats due to sexual misbehavior. It seems like money, power, and sex dominate the world today, especially the political world. When an average person is intimidated into not running, because he or she is unwilling to sell their souls for these false commodities, we all experience self-imposed voter suppression.
"Voters need to be perceptive about candidates' character as the best guide to our country's future, and not just make quick ideological choices without putting everything in the balance," he said.
"We regret human frailty, but we should not elect it."
The Democratic Party of Lee County, Chairman Jeffrey Kushner, also reacted to Radel's arrest and being given probation and his decision to take a leave of absence for treatment. He released the following statement.
"Congressman Trey Radel's conduct is an embarrassment to his district and to the state of Florida. The issues facing Florida and our country are too serious and require principled representation and strong leadership. It is for this reason, Congressman Radel should resign immediately. The voters of Florida's 19th Congressional District deserve better. We need to elect a representative that will effectively and honorably serve our best interest, a declared candidate such as April Freeman."
Radel said in his Wednesday night press conference that his offices in Cape Coral and Washington would remain open to handle constituents' affairs.
Congress is nearing its recess for the year and Radel could be back at his office when or close to when the next Congressional begins at the first of the year if his treatment is 90 days in length.
Radel said he would give part of his salary while he is on leave to a local charity in Southwest Florida. Members of Congress are paid $174,000 a year and are also given several perks.
Lehigh Acres political activist Joan Anderson, who is a Democrat, had this to say:
"Radel cannot apologize his way out of this. Sincere humility is not his forte. Speaker John Boehner once again fails to lead by not asking for his resignation."
Vote today on whether you believe Radel should resign his congressional seat. The poll question is on the bottom of Page 4.
The Associate Press contributed to this story.