WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Trey Radel, the Fort Myers Republican who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of cocaine on Wednesday, said he would take a leave of absence to get treatment.
"Sometimes in life you need a wake up call," he said at a 10:30 p.m. news conference in Cape Coral. "I have had my wake-up call."
Radel, who has been in office only 10 months, apologized for letting down voters and his family but said he thinks he can overcome his problem and vowed to return and become a role model for others. He said he will donate the salary he makes during his leave to charity.
"I do believe in faith, forgiveness and redemption and I hope to come out of this a stronger man, a better man for all of you," he said.
He began the day in a District of Columbia courtroom, admitting he bought 3.5 grams of cocaine from an undercover police officer and receiving a year of probation.
Had the former TV reporter been arrested in Florida he would have faced a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
"I apologize for what I've done. I think in life I've hit a bottom where I need help," Radel, 37, said in court.
Radel was already calling allies in Southwest Florida and told at least one GOP official he looked forward to returning to Washington.
Radel attributed his problems to an alcohol dependency, but law enforcement officials said he was a regular cocaine buyer.
Even as he decided to try to salvage his political career, the self-styled, hip-hop conservative congressman, who lived for the rapid-fire world of Twitter, should not be surprised at how quickly people have begun sizing up his seat and wondering how long he might last.
Republican consultants were circling even before his announcement, suggesting possible candidates, including Connie Mack IV, who vacated the congressional seat to challenge Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012. Former state Rep. Paige Kreegel, who lost to Radel in a nasty multicandidate GOP primary, said he might run. The name of state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, was also floated.
"He either has to have the decency to leave office or he'll have to wait until the voters throw him out," Kreegel said.
Other disgraced lawmakers have survived but cocaine carries its own weight, particularly for a candidate who campaigned on family values and in the GOP bastion that is Florida's 19th congressional district, covering Fort Myers and Naples. Last year, Republican Mitt Romney bested President Barack Obama by 22 percentage points in the district.
"Considering how conservative his district is, that's a tough thing to overcome in a campaign," said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland.
Wednesday afternoon, the News-Press of Fort Myers rescinded its endorsement of Radel, calling him an embarrassment and demanding he resign.
Critics rose up in other parts of the state. State Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, compared Radel to crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. "Don't let the problem in Toronto's government repeat itself in Fl. Congressional delegation. It's time step aside & move on," Legg wrote on Twitter.
Radel got caught up in a broader cocaine trafficking investigation. A dealer said a regular customer was a congressman.
According to authorities and court documents, on Oct. 29 Radel and an acquaintance went to a restaurant in the Dupont Circle area of Washington and met a man, who was an undercover police officer. Radel said he had cocaine at his apartment and invited the men, who declined. But the officer offered to sell Radel 3.5 grams of cocaine for $250.
Outside the restaurant, Radel, for reasons the documents do not explain, paid $10 more than the asking price and took the drugs. As federal agents approached, Radel dropped the cocaine in the street.
"The defendant agreed to speak with federal agents about what had just taken place and invited them to his apartment," court documents state. "There, he voluntarily admitted that he had purchased the cocaine. The defendant also retrieved and provided to the agents a vial of cocaine that he had in his apartment."
Despite the arrest, the news did not surface until Tuesday. That same day, Radel informed House Speaker John Boehner, who publicly said it is a matter for Radel and his constituents.
Radel was trying to rally support after the news broke.
The News-Press reported that he called Terry Miller, chairman of the Republican Party of Lee County, on Tuesday and indicated he would serve out the two-year term.
"He said that he was going to take care of the issues and that he was looking forward to returning to Congress (after the December holiday recess)," Miller said.
Radel has stirred controversy before. During the 2012 campaign, it was revealed he had bought up Internet domain names of his opponents.
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.