WASHINGTON – He was a rising star in Congress at lunchtime — and out of office by dinner.
Rep. Christopher Lee fell from power this week with a velocity seldom seen in the annals of Washington sex scandals, a blinking red caution sign for those who need one that the speed and reach of the Internet can crash a political career in the time it takes to push a button.
The now-famous photo of a shirtless Lee, R-N.Y., moved across cyberspace at 2:33 p.m. EST Wednesday, for just about anyone who wanted to see it. Three hours later, Lee resigned.
What happened in between on Capitol Hill remains unclear. But Republicans, still scrambling for their footing less than two months after assuming control of the House, insisted that Lee, who is married and has a young son, didn't need to be pushed.
"Congressman Lee made his own decision that he thought was in his own best interest and the interest of his family," said House Speaker John Boehner. He refused to discuss any contact he might have had with Lee, saying only that he became aware of the issue after the photo appeared online Wednesday and then learned of Lee's resignation after 6 p.m. "I think he made the right decision for himself and for his family."
Boehner's 5-week-old Republican majority, of course, benefited from Lee's exit and the distraction that largely departed with him. Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, reported last summer that the Ohio Republican had warned Lee and other newer members of Congress to knock off their unseemly partying with female lobbyists.
Lee, 46, was moving quickly up the House Republican ranks after winning the seat in 2008 despite a Democratic wave nationwide. A successful businessman, just last month he won a coveted seat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee after only one term in office. Lee's net worth is estimated between $8.5 million and $30.7 million and ranks 19th among House members, according to a tally of 2009 House financial disclosure reports by the Center for Responsive Politics.
His immolation was swift by any measure, but it began last week, according to Remy Stern, editor-in-chief of the website Gawker.com.
In a phone interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Stern said Gawker first became aware of the story late last week when the woman who had the exchange with Lee sent the website an e-mail tip about the encounter — including an attachment photo of a bare-chested Lee flexing an arm muscle. Through data embedded in the photo file, Gawker determined the photo was taken in Washington, D.C.
Gawker was then able to link Lee's g-mail address to his Facebook account. Stern said Gawker also checked to make sure the woman had no political agenda or grudge against Lee. He also said that the website did not pay the woman and that her only condition was anonymity.
On Tuesday, Gawker e-mailed Lee's press secretary to inform him the story they were pursuing. Minutes later, Lee's Facebook account vanished.
"It was very telling," Stern said.
Lee's press secretary then sent Gawker a copy of an e-mail that it said the congressman had sent to his staff on Jan. 23 alerting them that his e-mail had been hacked. Stern noted that Jan. 23 was well over a week after the woman and Lee had begun corresponding.
Gawker informed Lee on Tuesday night that they were planning to post the story the next day. Gawker got no response from Lee, Stern said.