Rep. Chris Lee resigns N.Y. seat in wake of online scandal

Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) abruptly resigned from Congress Wednesday night in the wake of an online scandal.

His departure came after the website Gawker.com published a report claiming that Lee, who is married, solicited a romantic encounter over the Internet, even sending a shirtless photo of himself to the woman.

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Lee is the second congressman from New York to resign in the wake of personal scandal in the past two years. Former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) resigned his seat in March 2010 after allegations of sexual misconduct with members of his staff.

“I regret the harm that my actions have caused my family, my staff and my constituents. I deeply and sincerely apologize to them all. I have made profound mistakes and I promise to work as hard as I can to seek their forgiveness,” Lee said in a statement.

“The challenges we face in Western New York and across the country are too serious for me to allow this distraction to continue, and so I am announcing that I have resigned my seat in Congress effective immediately,” he said.

The House accepted his resignation just before it adjourned for the evening.

According to the Gawker report, Lee used a Gmail account to e-mail a 34-year-old woman who put an ad on the “Women Seeking Men” section of Craigslist.com. He identified himself as a 39-year-old divorced lobbyist, and forwarded her a shirtless photo of himself, which the site published. Lee is 46 and married, with one son.

Lee was asked about the Gawker report earlier on Wednesday.

“I have to work this out with my wife,” he told Fox News.

Lee’s spokesman initially said the congressman’s e-mail had been hacked. “The Congressman is happily married,” Lee’s spokesman told Gawker.

But Lee offered his resignation without warning Wednesday night. He was first elected in 2008.

The scandal is a setback for House Republican leaders, who cited ethics, among other issues, in their successful effort to win back the lower chamber last year.

Throughout the 111th Congress, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) strongly criticized how Democratic leaders handled the ethics controversies of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). By a vote of 333-79, the House censured Rangel in December. Lee supported that measure.

At press time, Boehner had not commented on Lee's resignation.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has 30 days to call a special election after a vacancy is declared. But the governor doesn’t necessarily need to declare a vacancy. In 2010, then-Gov. David Paterson (D) did not declare a vacancy for Massa’s seat to avoid the cost of a special election.

But with so much time remaining in Lee’s term, Cuomo will likely be forced to call a vote.

The 26th district leans Republican, having voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by six points in the 2008 presidential election and for President George W. Bush by 12 points in his 2004 reelection. Lee won reelection to his seat with 74 percent of the vote in 2010.

Still, the last time a scandal forced a resignation in the New York delegation, Massa’s district flipped from Democrat to Republican.

Some possible GOP contenders being mentioned by Washington operatives include Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, Erie County Republican Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy, and New York Assemblywoman Jane Corwin.

New York is set to lose two House seats in the redistricting process. Lee’s district, given the population decline and the former congressman’s resignation, could face the chopping block.

This story was originally published at 6:07 p.m. and updated at 8:06 p.m.