Secretly recorded call adds to controversy swirling around Cawthorn
A former district staff member for Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) is accusing him of improperly firing her after denying her family and medical leave, allegations the lawmaker and his office have vehemently denied.
At one point during the call, Lisa Wiggins, who was a caseworker for the 26-year-old first-term representative in his district office for over a year, described that office as having “more liquor bottles than they do water bottles.”
Cawthorn’s office insinuated that the allegations, made in a secretly recorded and released conversation with the head of an anti-Cawthorn PAC, were politically motivated, and hinted at potential counteraction by saying that they constitute “defamation of character.”
Wiggins unloaded about Cawthorn in a call with David Wheeler, the president of the anti-Cawthorn American Muckrakers PAC more commonly known as Fire Madison Cawthorn, accusing him of “denying me my FMLA” leave when her uncle died and her husband suffered a heart attack the same week.
Wiggins did not know the call was being recorded, and Wheeler assured her that there was no way Cawthorn could know that they talked. North Carolina has a “one-party consent” state wiretapping law, allowing just one person who is party to a conversation to record it without the knowledge of the other party.
Wiggins, who was not ready to share her personal story and was shell-shocked at statements she made in confidence being made public, declined to elaborate on the accusations or confirm that a workplace complaint had been filed against Cawthorn when reached by The Hill on Monday.
But Wiggins did confirm that she is working for a GOP challenger to Cawthorn, retired Army Col. Rod Honeycutt. She started supporting Honeycutt’s campaign after Cawthorn had said he would run in a new adjacent district before switching back to the district encompassing most of his current western Appalachian territory.
“It’s not as though I was just working for him against Cawthorn. Cawthorn was no longer going to be working in this district. And he also gave me blessing to do so when he left the district,” Wiggins told The Hill.
Wheeler said that the call took place last week on April 12. He released the audio from the conversation on the PAC’s website on Monday, and a report about it from local outlet Smoky Mountain News soon followed.
“I recorded it for my notes because I usually transcribe notes out, and she just kept going on and on. I realized I had a bombshell on my hands,” Wheeler told The Hill. “I just think it was in the public’s interest to hear this story.”
During the call, Wiggins told Wheeler that she was fired three days after she was given a warning that did not specify what she was being warned about. She added that being in her 40s, she was the oldest caseworker that Cawthorn had.
The former staffer told Wheeler that she was working with a lawyer on Capitol Hill to take action against the congressman. A complaint about that issue would likely be filed with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, the entity that handles workplace issues for congressional staff, which keeps such matters confidential.
In the recorded call, Wiggins said that Cawthorn closed all of his district offices except his Hendersonville office and described staff as partying and “drinking like crazy.”
“They have more liquor bottles than they do water bottles,” Wiggins told Wheeler. “There’s always all kind of animals in there. Kittens, puppies, you know. There’s a litter box in there, for heaven’s sake. I’m not against animals, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not professional.”
She plainly expressed her dislike of Cawthorn.
“He’s just a bad person, he’s a habitual liar, and he’s going to say and do anything he can to your face, but behind your back it’s completely opposite,” Wiggins said in the call.
Wiggins said during the call that while “we all want the ultimate goal of him not ever serving again” and that she wished the news of her complaint would “hit the front newspaper,” she repeatedly said during the call that she could not go public with her claims.
“I can’t release it until the end, cause it can hinder my case,” she said.
Cawthorn’s office refuted Wiggins’s claims.
“These accusations are verifiably false. The individual spreading these disgusting allegations is currently working for a primary opponent of Congressman Cawthorn,” spokesman Luke Ball said in a statement. “We believe these comments potentially amount to defamation of character, and are exploring options to ensure the Congressman’s name emerges from these slanderous remarks unscathed.”
Ball added that to his knowledge, Cawthorn’s office had not gotten notice of a complaint filed with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights.
The allegations add to a growing list of recent troubles for Cawthorn, who has come under fire from fellow Republican colleagues for incendiary statements and actions in recent weeks.
Cawthorn was recently charged with driving with a revoked license. Last month, he called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug.” On a recent podcast, Cawthorn alleged that he had been invited to an orgy in Washington, D.C. and said people who advocate for addiction treatment will do “a key bump of cocaine right in front of you.”
That prompted a stern public rebuke from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who told reporters that Cawthorn had “lost my trust” and has “got to turn himself around.”
It has also put pressure on his reelection prospects. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) recently endorsed state Sen. Chuck Edwards, one of Cawthorn’s challengers. Cawthorn needs to secure at least 30 percent support in his May 17 primary in order to avoid a primary runoff.