Utah's House majority leader resigned from the Legislature Saturday, two days after acknowledging he paid a woman $150,000 to keep quiet about a nude hot-tubbing incident that took place a quarter century ago when she was a teenager.
Republican Rep. Kevin Garn's Thursday night confession came in a speech before House colleagues and stunned this conservative state. On Saturday, he apologized in an e-mail to House Speaker David Clark for becoming a distraction.
"After discussing this matter with my family, I have decided that it is in the best interests of them, my colleagues and the people of Utah," he wrote.
Garn, 55, acknowledged the indiscretion with the legal minor immediately after the Legislature adjourned for the session.
"Although we did not have any sexual contact, it was still clearly inappropriate — and it was my fault," he said from the House floor Thursday night.
Lawmakers responded with a standing ovation for his honesty and embraced him — a move some found offensive given the nature of what Garn was saying. In hindsight, the ovation may not have been the best move, but it shouldn't be misconstrued to indicate support for unethical behavior, Clark said Saturday.
Garn told colleagues he paid the woman, Cheryl Maher, after she began contacting reporters about the incident during his unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat in 2002. Despite a confidentiality agreement, the now 40-year-old Maher began contacting local news media last week to retell her story about being naked with Garn when she was 15, he said Thursday.
It's unclear whether Garn was 29 or 30 at the time of the incident. He's more than 14 years older than Maher, who now lives in Derry, N.H.
Maher said by telephone Saturday that she and Garn were in a hot tub together twice — once in late 1984 after she had just turned 15 and again a few months later in 1985. She declined to say if the pair were nude both times or to provide any other specifics of the hot tubbing episodes.
A message left for Garn on his cell phone Saturday wasn't immediately returned.
"I'm sure the resignation was really difficult for him, but it needed to happen," Maher said. "This is a secret that devastated my life and my family's life."
She said she thinks Garn still has a bright future out of politics.
"My intention was not to harm or hurt anyone, it's just to speak the truth," she said. "It's freedom for me to get it out in the open and I think somewhere down the line he will think it's freedom for him, too."
Brigham Young University political scientist Quin Monson said Garn had little choice but to resign.
"People can overcome and get on with their lives," Monson said. "But it doesn't necessarily mean we need to have them in a position of power and public trust."
Garn's resignation is the second for a Utah Republican legislative leader in the past three months. Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack resigned from the senate in January following his arrest for driving under the influence.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland said his party will highlight recent ethical shortcomings of state Republicans, including former GOP state lawmaker Mark Walker's guilty plea last year to a misdemeanor charge.
That case stemmed from allegations Walker tried to get his competitor in the 2008 state treasurer's race to drop out by offering him a raise.
"It's just an ongoing pattern of bad behavior where Utah looks like we're trying to compete with South Carolina," Holland said. "Voters this fall are going to go into a voting booth with a different attitude about electing people beyond labels that they think share their values."
But Utah Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen said the party will bounce back. Republicans typically win strong support from Utah voters: In the 2008 presidential election, for example, Sen. John McCain received 62.6 percent of the vote.
"I would've preferred neither one of them had happened, obviously, but they did," Hansen said of the Garn and Killpack resignations. "But I don't think in the long run it's going to have any effect."
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