Rep. Henry “Trey” Radel, R-Fla., pleaded guilty in a soft voice Wednesday to one count of cocaine possession and was placed on one year of supervised probation.
Arrested Oct. 29 after an undercover sting outside a Washington restaurant, the conservative freshman lawmaker acknowledged that he is an addict and pledged to enter a residential treatment program near his hometown of Naples, Fla.
The 37-year-old tea party favorite said he already has begun outpatient counseling in Washington, though the exact nature of his addiction was not specified during the 25-minute court hearing Wednesday morning.
“I apologize for what I’ve done,” Radel said in a packed courtroom. “I think in life I’ve hit a bottom where I need help, and I have aggressively sought that help.”
Radel announced Wednesday night that he would take an indefinite leave of absence and donate his congressional salary to charity.
On Tuesday, in a written statement that followed news of his arrest, Radel declared that he is in a “struggle with the disease of alcoholism” that “led to an extremely irresponsible choice.” The chief federal prosecutor, by contrast, cast the episode as being less isolated, with U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen saying Wednesday that investigators learned Radel “was routinely using and buying cocaine.”
District of Columbia Superior Court Senior Judge Robert Tignor, after hearing a federal prosecutor lay out the facts behind Radel’s arrest, imposed the probation with what he described as light monitoring. Tignor also ordered Radel to pay $250 into a victim’s compensation fund.
Radel potentially faced a sentence of 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, in addition to the payment to the victim’s compensation fund.
Under a provision of D.C. law, the judge suspended final adjudication of Tignor’s case pending completion of probation. If the congressman successfully completes the year, the case could be dismissed. If Radel violates the terms, Tignor warned, he could still go to jail.
Last year, federal prosecutors in Washington charged about 700 individuals with misdemeanor cocaine possession. Most of these individuals pleaded guilty under provisions similar to those afforded to Radel, accepted a drug diversion program or had the charge dismissed, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Dressed in a dark suit and accompanied by two defense attorneys, one of them a former top homicide prosecutor, Radel stood throughout the hearing held in a third-floor courtroom. He spoke only when spoken to by the judge or his attorneys and delivered his apology prior to being sentenced. Normally a voluble communicator through his Twitter account and in person – “Had some fun last few weeks,” Radel declared via Twitter on the day he was arrested – the former journalist exited the courthouse ahead of pursuing reporters. He steered well clear of the half a dozen television cameras parked outside the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse.
“I am so sorry to be here,” Radel told Tignor during the court session. “I know I have let my country down, my constituents down and, most importantly, my wife and 2-year-old daughter . . . down.”
According to a summary presented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Nihar Mohanty, “confidential informant” sources tipped off investigators that Radel had “on several occasions purchased, possessed and used cocaine.” Federal investigators, who said Wednesday that they were engaged in a broader investigation of drug trafficking in the Washington area, then organized a sting.
“The agents learned that the defendant would purchase cocaine for his personal use and also, on occasion, share it with others,” Mohanty said.
About 10 p.m. on Oct. 29, Mohanty said, an undercover investigator and an “acquaintance” of Radel met with the congressman at a restaurant in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington. Radel said that he had cocaine at his apartment and the undercover officer then offered to sell Radel more of the drug, Mohanty said. Radel agreed.
The undercover officer and Radel then adjourned to the undercover officer’s car outside the restaurant, where Radel handed over $260 and the undercover officer handed over 3.5 grams of cocaine. When Radel exited the car, federal officers approached and he dropped the cocaine to the street, Mohanty said. The congressman then admitted he had purchased the drug and agreed that officers could come back to his apartment, where he showed them an additional vial of cocaine.
Tignor asked Radel whether he believed he was, in fact, purchasing cocaine.
“Yes,” Radel said, “that’s what I expected.”
Defense attorney David Schertler, the former chief homicide prosecutor in D.C., assured the judge that Radel “has been a productive, law-abiding citizen his entire life” and declared that “he has been very successful in his hometown of Naples, Fla.”
Radel’s outpatient counseling has begun with a D.C.-based company called Executive Addictive Disease Programs, whose website emphasizes “abstinence and relapse prevention, engaging in a recovery fellowship and building support systems, and understanding alcoholism and addiction in the context of the family.”
Radel also said that he stands “ready to face the consequences of my actions,” though the political fallout may take a while. In his inaugural 2012 House campaign, Radel won easily by 62 percent to 32 percent. His greatest political threat could come from his own party, as Republicans enjoy a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage over Democrats in the district, according to state records.
“I will try to be a better man, a better husband and to continue serving this country,” Radel said.