By LAURIE KELLMAN and ANDREW MIGA
WASHINGTON — He was a rising star in Congress at lunchtime — and out of office by dinner.
Rep. Christopher Lee fell from power this week with a velocity seldom seen in the annals of Washington sex scandals, a blinking red caution sign for those who need one that the speed and reach of the Internet can crash a political career in the time it takes to push a button.
The now-famous photo of a shirtless Lee, R-N.Y., moved across cyberspace at 2:33 p.m. EST Wednesday, for just about anyone who wanted to see it. Three hours later, Lee resigned.
What happened in between on Capitol Hill remains unclear. But Republicans, still scrambling for their footing less than two months after assuming control of the House, insisted that Lee, who is married and has a young son, didn’t need to be pushed.
“Congressman Lee made his own decision that he thought was in his own best interest and the interest of his family,” said House Speaker John Boehner. He refused to discuss any contact he might have had with Lee, saying only that he became aware of the issue after the photo appeared online Wednesday and then learned of Lee’s resignation after 6 p.m. “I think he made the right decision for himself and for his family.”
Boehner’s 5-week-old Republican majority, of course, benefited from Lee’s exit and the distraction that largely departed with him. Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, reported last summer that the Ohio Republican had warned Lee and other newer members of Congress to knock off their unseemly partying with female lobbyists.
Lee, 46, was moving quickly up the House Republican ranks after winning the seat in 2008 despite a Democratic wave nationwide. A successful businessman, just last month he won a coveted seat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee after only one term in office. Lee’s net worth is estimated between $8.5 million and $30.7 million and ranks 19th among House members, according to a tally of 2009 House financial disclosure reports by the Center for Responsive Politics.
His immolation was swift by any measure, but it began last week, according to Remy Stern, editor-in-chief of the website Gawker.com.
In a phone interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Stern said Gawker first became aware of the story late last week when the woman who had the exchange with Lee sent the website an e-mail tip about the encounter — including an attachment photo of a bare-chested Lee flexing an arm muscle. Through data embedded in the photo file, Gawker determined the photo was taken in Washington, D.C.
Gawker was then able to link Lee’s g-mail address to his Facebook account. Stern said Gawker also checked to make sure the woman had no political agenda or grudge against Lee. He also said that the website did not pay the woman and that her only condition was anonymity.
On Tuesday, Gawker e-mailed Lee’s press secretary to inform him the story they were pursuing. Minutes later, Lee’s Facebook account vanished.
“It was very telling,” Stern said.
Lee’s press secretary then sent Gawker a copy of an e-mail that it said the congressman had sent to his staff on Jan. 23 alerting them that his e-mail had been hacked. Stern noted that Jan. 23 was well over a week after the woman and Lee had begun corresponding.
Gawker informed Lee on Tuesday night that they were planning to post the story the next day. Gawker got no response from Lee, Stern said.
Gawker posted the item on Lee at 2:33 p.m. EST Wednesday. It told the story of a 34-year-old Maryland woman and government employee who had an online encounter with Lee in response to an ad she placed last month in the “Women Seeking Men” section of Craigslist.
Gawker reported that Lee identified himself as a divorced lobbyist and sent the photo of him posing shirtless in front of a mirror. It said the woman eventually broke off the contact with Lee after becoming suspicious that he had misrepresented himself.
Just over three hours later, AP received an e-mail statement from Lee making a vague reference to the incident and announcing his resignation.
“It was stunning,” Stern said.
By Thursday night, politicos from Washington to Buffalo, N.Y., were bandying names of possible candidates in the yet-to-be announced special election for Lee seat. They included White House spokesman Bill Burton, a Buffalo native who had been approached about making a run, according to a knowledgeable official who asked not to be identified revealing private discussions. The official and several other Democrats said Burton is unlikely to seek the seat in the Republican-leaning district. Possible Republican candidates included former state Assemblyman Jack Quinn III, the son of former Rep. Jack Quinn.
Extramarital scandal and the fall of its casualties are Washington rituals as old as Congress itself. But searching for love in lawless cyberspace defies the illicit nature of prospective liaisons and carries the risk of leaving damning evidence that can be beamed around the globe in moments.
Still, Lee wasn’t the first congressmen sunk by the lure of love over the Internet. And Boehner knows well the challenge such transgressions pose to party leaders.
In 2006, Florida GOP Rep. Mark Foley resigned one day after e-mails he had written three years earlier to a former congressional page surfaced. The scandal quickly focused on GOP leaders.
Boehner, at the time House majority leader, and former New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, who headed the GOP’s re-election campaign, said they had spoken with then-Speaker Denny Hastert about some details of the matter months earlier. Hastert indicated that it had been “taken care of,” Boehner told radio station WLW in Cincinnati. “My position is it’s in his corner, it’s his responsibility.”
On Thursday, as Lee’s staff tried to carry on until the winner of a special election takes over the seat, Boehner refused to describe any role he may have played in Congress’s latest scandal.
He has set standards with the group of lawmakers before.
Last March, Boehner, then head of his party as minority leader, dealt quickly with Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., when he learned during a weekend that Souder was having an affair with a part-time aide who was married. That Monday, Boehner spoke by phone with Souder and then reported his conversation to the House ethics committee. By Tuesday, Souder had resigned.
Later that summer, Roll Call reported that Boehner had warned Lee and some other colleagues about inappropriately hanging out with female lobbyists.
“I’ve had members in here where I thought they had crossed the line,” Roll Call quoted Boehner as saying at the time. “I have had others I thought were approaching the line.”
So why then, Boehner was asked Thursday, do there still seem to be so many scandals in Congress?
“I wouldn’t know,” Boehner said.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington and Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo contributed to this report.