Mahoney's Florida District Has Sex-Scandal Déjà Vu

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J. Pat Carter / AP

Rep. Tim Mahoney, Democrat of Florida.

Updated: Sunday, Oct. 19, 2008

Another Congressman, weeks from an election, is accused of untoward sexual behavior, contradicting his public stance as a moral crusader. He initially says as little as possible, offers opaque denials, vague apologies to his family for whatever he did or did not do, and predicts vindication.

At a certain point, you have to start feeling bad for the scandal-scarred residents of Florida's 16th Congressional District, who are only two years removed from the abrupt resignation of Republican Representative Mark Foley after claims that he sent inappropriate, sexually suggestive e-mail and text messages to young male pages on Capitol Hill. That scandal helped catapult the Democrat Tim Mahoney, an investment banker, into the House; soon after his swearing in as the Representative of the Republican-leaning district, he told reporters that Foley had not reflected the "values and morals" required to serve in office.

Now, by his own logic, it may be Mahoney himself who isn't fit for the job. In recent days, he has battled allegations of a dalliance with a former staffer and an alleged payoff to stay hush, as well as a second affair with a high-ranking county official that may have gotten mixed up with official business. As ABC News first reported, Mahoney's romance with 50-year-old Patricia Allen began on a campaign stop in 2006. Following his election victory, she joined his congressional staff — but was soon moved back to his campaign staff. After terminating their relationship and then firing Allen in January of this year, Mahoney allegedly paid her and her lawyer $121,000 —along with a promise of a job at a media firm — to keep her quiet and avoid a sexual-harassment lawsuit. Allen has refused comment to ABC News.

The morning after the story broke, a glum-looking Mahoney, his wife sitting to his left, spent a minute and a half reading from a prepared statement and declining to answer questions, offering little details beyond accepting "the full responsibility for my actions and the pain I have caused" family members. "I'm sorry that these allegations have caused embarrassment and heartache," he said, moments before calling on the House Ethics Committee to investigate the "false allegations." "I want to be clear that I have not misused campaign funds, and I am confident that when all the facts come to light, I will be completely vindicated." Mahoney's campaign has stated separately that Allen "resigned of her own accord, in good standing."

Mahoney attorney Gary Isaacs told TIME on Thursday morning that there was a settlement paid to Allen, but that the funds came from Mahoney's business. "I have no reason to believe for there to be an inkling of any impropriety" as far as campaign or taxpayer money being used, Isaacs said. The attorney did not elaborate on what the settlement payment was for. "Both sides are bound by confidentiality," he said. "There's an agreement between the parties that limit what I can say with regards to the resolution."

Republicans across the state and country pounced on Mahoney's clumsy response. Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, happened to be at a fund raiser for Mahoney's opponent in Palm Beach County, where Mahoney lives, the morning of Mahoney's press conference, and he wasted no time in attacking the alleged $121,000 in hush money given to Allen. Party members blasted Mahoney, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for a separate Ethics Committee investigation — which, since Congress is on recess, would have to take place after the election. Florida's Republican Party rushed a one-minute television ad mocking a 2006 Mahoney television campaign commercial that described him as someone "who believes in faith, family and personal responsibility"; the image is followed by excerpts of an alleged telephone call from January in which the bullying Congressman tells Allen "You're fired" no fewer than six times in three minutes. A spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party late Wednesday afternoon refused to comment on the allegations against Mahoney. By early Thursday morning, the Palm Beach County Republican Party issued a statement calling on Mahoney to resign.

The initial revelations were just the beginning of Mahoney's woes. The FBI is reportedly investigating if any campaign dollars or taxpayer funds were used in his settlement with Allen, and a second woman, a high-ranking official in Martin County, directly north of Palm Beach County, reportedly also had an affair with Mahoney while he was in office. On Wednesday, ABC News reported allegations that Mahoney went out of his way to help the woman secure a $3.2 million hurricane-cleanup reimbursement from FEMA. (Mahoney's representative responded that the Congressman had helped many counties in Florida get reimbursed by Washington for disaster-recovery expenses, and that Martin County had been seeking funding prior to Mahoney's election.) Republicans have also accused leading Democrats of covering up whatever knowledge they had of Mahoney's trysts, the very same charge that was leveled at Republicans after Foley's behavior surfaced two years ago.

The scandal, not surprisingly, has sparked all sorts of speculation and questions. Political insiders said rumors of Mahoney's philandering had surfaced for years, so who leaked this story now? Why are the ABC story's main sources former and current campaign staffers? And will the state and national party vigorously defend Mahoney, who is not considered a rising star?

Even before the current scandal, Mahoney was facing a tough re-election battle with Republican Tom Rooney, an attorney and well-funded opponent whose family owns the Pittsburgh Steelers. A survey of 400 likely voters conducted by Rooney's campaign in early September gave Mahoney a 48-41 lead, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points. In a district where Republican registrants still lead Democrats by 41% to 37%, Mahoney has done his best to sell himself as a moderate Democrat, picking up an endorsement from the National Rifle Association. But Republicans had already targeted Mahoney as a vulnerable incumbent, especially since he won the Foley seat by only 4,000 votes. Vice President Dick Cheney flew into town last month for a fund raiser for Rooney, who knocked off two Republican rivals in the primary. More than $5 million in contributions have been collected in the campaign; as of early August, Mahoney had raised more than $2.5 million and Rooney nearly $800,000. And now Republicans are invigorated by the idea of gaining back a rare congressional seat from Democrats this year. "This is a godsend for them," Robert Watson, a political science professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, told TIME.

So far, Mahoney's done himself no favors, Watson said. "Mahoney has handled this really badly. Embarrassing. Textbook how not to do it." Other politicians have met continued success after admitting their personal or professional flaws. Why doesn't Mahoney question the fact that his phone conversation was recorded, or that the tape released by ABC is incomplete? "If there's some legal, complicated knots and scenarios here, I'd advise him to say it's not the right time to talk," Watson said. But if not, "why not come clean?"

A Rooney-Mahoney debate is scheduled for Oct. 24, but the campaign did not return a phone call Wednesday to confirm if it was still on. Palm Beach County GOP chair Sid Dinerstein is happy he still has a seat to the event, he said. Since 2006, the area has seen four city and county commissioners imprisoned for corruption charges; the Foley scandal; a still unresolved Aug. 26 judicial election in which voting ballots briefly disappeared; and now the Mahoney affair. "The voters, they are waiting for a natural leader," Dinerstein said. Or at least one who can manage to stay out of trouble.

Update: Mahoney has since admitted to having "multiple" marital affairs, according to interviews with news outlets on Friday Oct 17. This apparently included the one with former congressional and campaign staffer Patricia Allen that lasted from 2006 through 2008. Mahoney and Allen settled a lawsuit this year that gives Allen $60,000 and her attorneys $40,000. He didn't want "the public spectacle" of Allen going public during the congressman's first re-election campaign, so he chose the settlement as his best option. "I wanted to hide it," he said, and "make it go away," though he admitted to being "ashamed" of the affair and for putting himself in a "stupid situation," and felt "remorse" for embarrassing himself and his wife and daughter. Mahoney insists he's broken no laws, as the money came from personal funds and not campaign or taxpayer money. And he'll stay in the race. "I've tried my best. I've been a good congressman. I haven't done anything wrong," Mahoney said.

(See a gallery of campaign gaffes here.)

(Click here for the Key Races to Watch '08.)