By Gabriel Debenedetti
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Florida congressman Henry "Trey" Radel plans to take a leave of absence and donate his salary to charity, he said on Wednesday night after earlier pleading guilty in D.C. Superior Court to a misdemeanor charge of possession of cocaine.
Radel, 37, a Republican who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives last year with the backing of the conservative Tea Party movement, was sentenced to one year of probation on a charge of buying 3.5 grams of cocaine in Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood on October 29 in the presence of an undercover agent.
"I have no excuse for what I have done," he told reporters late Wednesday at his office in Cape Coral, near Fort Myers on Florida's west coast. "I'm owning up to my actions," he added, saying he hoped to be "a better man for southwest Florida" as he struggles to overcome "this disease."
In an earlier statement, Radel said his "struggles with alcoholism" had led him to make an "extremely irresponsible choice."
"I am so sorry to be here. I know I have let my constituents down, my country down and, most importantly, my family, including my wife and my 2-year-old, who doesn't know it yet," Radel told Judge Robert Tignor on Wednesday morning.
Radel said that he would enter an "intensive" in-patient drug treatment program in Florida during his leave of absence.
He did not say how long he planned to be absent, nor which charity would receive his salary.
Radel appeared to have no plans to resign from the House of Representatives, saying his staff will handle his affairs in his absence.
The case against Radel stemmed from an investigation by Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration agents into cocaine trafficking in the Washington area, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nihar Mohanty said.
"Today's guilty plea emerges from a broader narcotics investigation that brought to light information that a sitting member of Congress was routinely using and buying cocaine," U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. said in a statement.
Court papers indicate that Radel, a former TV broadcaster and radio show host who has described himself on Twitter as a "hip-hop conservative," met an acquaintance and the undercover officer at a Dupont Circle restaurant at 10 p.m. on October 29. Radel told the pair that he had cocaine in his apartment, the court documents say, and he invited them to the apartment to share the drug.
They declined, and the undercover agent offered to sell Radel more cocaine, the papers say. Radel agreed and gave them $260. After they retrieved the cocaine from the acquaintance's vehicle, Radel was approached by officers and dropped the cocaine on the ground. He then invited them to his apartment and surrendered another vial of cocaine, the court papers say.
Radel's attorney, David Schertler, asked for six months of probation for Radel, who under Washington, D.C., law faced up to 180 days in prison and a fine of up to $1,000. Tignor ordered him to pay a $250 fine and serve one year of probation, a typical sentence for a first offender in Washington.
If Radel had been caught in his home state of Florida buying an equal amount of cocaine he could have faced felony charges that could have resulted in a prison sentence.
However, first-time offenders like Radel "are generally allowed to participate in a Drug Court, where they receive outpatient treatment for a year and then the charges are dismissed," said David Weinstein, a former Florida state prosecutor.
Schertler said that Radel had been in out-patient treatment in Washington, and would enter an in-patient facility in Naples, Florida.
In Collier County, Florida, which Radel represents in Congress, Democrats called for Radel's resignation and accused him of hypocrisy for, among other things, opposing the legalization of medical marijuana and advocating drug testing for welfare recipients.
"Congressman Trey Radel's conduct is an embarrassment to his district and to the state of Florida," Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said in a statement.
Lenny Curry, chairman of Florida's Republican Party, said, "I'm deeply disappointed in Congressman Radel's choices. I am glad that he is seeking help."
(Additional reporting by David Adams and Kevin Gray in Miami; Editing by David Lindsey, Vicki Allen and Ken Wills)