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December 22, 2014

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Fla. congressman to resign after cocaine scandal

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

In this July 9, 2013, file photo, Rep. Henry “Trey” Radel, R-Fla. speaks in Washington.

MIAMI — Facing a House ethics investigation, the Florida congressman who pleaded guilty to cocaine-possession charges last year says he will resign Monday evening, after several GOP leaders requested that he step down.

U.S. Rep. Trey Radel announced his impending resignation in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, saying that while this year has "already been tremendously positive ... some of my struggles had serious consequences." He will step down Monday, effective at 6:30 p.m., the letter says.

Politico first reported the upcoming resignation Monday morning.

On Nov. 20, the freshman Republican pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of cocaine possession and was sentenced to a year of probation. He admitted to purchasing 3.5 grams of cocaine from an undercover officer Oct. 29 in Washington.

"While I have dealt with those issues on a personal level, it is my belief that professionally I cannot fully and effectively serve as a United States Representative to the place I love and call home, Southwest Florida," Radel wrote in the letter.

Several GOP leaders, including Gov. Rick Scott, had asked him to resign. But Radel had pledged to stay in office and rebuild constituents' trust after taking a leave of absence and completing a monthlong in-patient treatment program for drug and alcohol abuse. In a defiant prime-time news conference last month, he defended his legislative record and pledged to redouble his congressional efforts "with a clearer focus and a stronger mind."

After returning to Congress this month, he apologized to Republican colleagues and assured them in a closed-door meeting that he was in a good place and had found a support group, according to House aides who spoke on condition of anonymity at the time because they weren't authorized to discuss the private meeting.

Political pressure, however, was building.

The House Ethics Committee announced last month that it was launching a formal investigation of the congressman, and at least one of his former rivals, former state Rep. Paige Kreegel, had vowed to challenge him in a GOP primary. On Monday, Lizbeth Benacquisto, the GOP majority leader of the state Senate, said she was weighing a bid to replace Radel.

Former Rep. Connie Mack IV, who represented the area for eight years before a failed run for Senate, has been mentioned as another possible candidate.

On Monday, Mack declined to comment on whether he would mount a campaign but hinted at a possible bid. In a statement, he said Radel's resignation was "the right decision" and wished the congressman's family well.

"Now it's time for Southwest Florida to elect a new Congressman who will be a tireless champion of our shared mainstream conservative values," Mack said, citing his own plan for deficit reduction. "

Radel had been in office for 10 months when charged. His deeply conservative district includes the Gulf Coast cities of Fort Myers and Naples.

The drug arrest derailed a seemingly promising career.

After a stint as a TV news anchor, he started a media-relations firm and hosted an early-morning conservative talk-radio show in southwest Florida. He married another news anchor, and they had a baby.

When he decided to run for Congress, he became involved in a bruising, six-way GOP primary, openly targeting opponents on the Internet and facing criticism for his firm's ownership of explicitly named websites. But he was backed by the local tea party movement and clinched the GOP nomination. Supported by Republican luminaries, including Mack and Sen. Marco Rubio, he cruised to victory in November.

Things seemed to be going well for Radel. His wife was featured in a glowing local news segment about how the couple was adjusting to life in D.C. He sponsored a handful of bills and was interviewed by several inside-the-Beltway publications. He was active on Twitter and championed cuts in sheep-farm subsidies, keeping good on his conservative promise.

Then, on Oct. 29, Radel attempted to buy $250 worth of cocaine from an undercover police officer in a Washington neighborhood.

According to court documents, federal agents confronted the congressman and he invited them to his apartment, where he turned over a vial of the drug. A DEA official who spoke on 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.

For the next three weeks, Radel didn't skip a beat. He held a re-election fundraiser at a Naples country club and continued to cast votes. He did not tell House leaders about the bust until Nov. 19, when reporters broke the news about the case.

When his arrest became public, Radel said during a news conference that he had struggled with drug and alcohol abuse "off and on for years."

While court documents said the lawmaker purchased cocaine on several occasions before the October incident, he maintained that he had used the drug only "a handful of times." His treatment, he said, was focused on alcoholism.

On Monday, Radel thanked Boehner and his colleagues for their support and said he is leaving Congress "with friendships and memories."

"As an eternal optimist, I know there are great things in store for our country when we find ways to work together," he wrote. "Whether it is as a father, a husband, or in any future endeavor, I hope to contribute what I can to better our country in the years to come."

Scott will set a date for a special election to fill Radel's seat.

Associated Press reporter Brendan Farrington contributed to this report.

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