In trouble with the law: run-ins with police are fact of Capitol life

Before Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) crashed his car into a security barrier and Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) struck a cop with her cell phone, other members of Congress current and former have found themselves in embarrassing scrapes and been forced to face legal or political consequences.

Some have received tickets, others have paid fines, still others have suffered only momentary media coverage of their misdeeds.

In 2004, the police went to the Capitol Hill apartment of Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.), responding to a 911 call from Cynthia Ore, a woman with whom the lawmaker was having an affair who accused him of choking her.

According to reports, Sherwood, who is married, said he was giving her a backrub when she panicked and ran into his bathroom. He eventually admitted the affair but insisted the incident was part of a political smear and that the allegations were untrue.

Ore sued Sherwood, but they settled out of court last November and neither will discuss their agreement. A spokesman for Sherwood did not return a call for comment.

Kennedy, who checked himself into the Mayo Clinic last week, is not the first member to seek help through rehabilitation after a public slip-up. Former Rep. Karen McCarthy (D-Mo.) checked herself into an Arizona facility after she fell off an escalator in 2003 and hit her head while inebriated inside a House office building.

She emerged from the hospital and announced she would seek treatment for alcohol abuse. She retired from Congress in 2004.

Whether such indiscretions hurt a lawmaker’s reelection chances depends on the act committed and the moral climate in Washington, says Steven Billet, director of the George Washington University graduate school’s PAC-management program.

“Certainly [incidents] can hurt people for reelection if there is the perception that they are trying to cover things up,” he said, “but if [members] come forward and appear to be opening up they tend to do better.”

Congressional indiscretions rarely influence races or districts with highly partisan leanings but tend to have the most impact with swing voters, Billet said.

“I think if I was Kennedy or McKinney, those would be the groups I’d take a good, hard look at,” he added.

In April 2004, Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.), a member who has had difficult election years, was detained at an airport in Kentucky after screeners found a loaded Glock 9 mm handgun in his briefcase.

Reports indicated that he was questioned for an hour by the FBI and later said that he had forgotten the weapon was in the baggage. He was required to turn over the gun and received a 60-day suspended jail sentence. He did not have to serve the time.

A spokesman for Hostettler did not return a call for comment.

In 2000, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) was given a ticket and a $25 fine after running over a child’s foot with his car on the East Front plaza. He left the scene of the accident. The lawmaker said a Capitol Police officer “waved him on” and he returned to his office.

Lynne Weil, a spokeswoman for Lantos, said that after he found out that the child, 13, was hurt he contacted the family and apologized. Weil said there was media attention but no impact on Lantos’s reelection campaign that year.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) had a run-in with a child that year too. He allegedly grabbed a boy while waiting for his own children at an Alexandria recreation center.

He said the 8-year-old boy had threatened to steal his car. Moran held the boy and called the police. The family threatened to sue the lawmaker, and the issue attracted wide media attention, but while local voters were upset their anger died down after Moran explained what happened, his spokesman said.

The area around the recreation center remains one of the strongest precincts in Moran’s district, the spokesman added.

Perhaps the most infamous modern example of a member running afoul of the law was the 1974 romp of the late Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.).

Police stopped the former chairman of the Ways and Means Committee after spotting his car driving erratically near the Jefferson Memorial. When the car stopped, Mills’s companion, a stripper named Fanne Foxe, leapt from the car and into the Tidal Basin.

Mills disclosed details of his relationship with Fox and never fully recovered politically.