If there is any good to come from the tragedy of Rep. Tom Garrett’s single term in Congress, let it be a cautionary tale to others in elected office.
Garrett, who represented the Fifth District in the House of Representatives during the recently concluded 115th Congress, left office under a cloud of scandal and personal tragedy brought on by his battle with alcoholism. When the congressman announced last spring he wouldn’t seek re-election, he acknowledged his years-long dependence on alcohol, saying he needed to confront it once and for all. He recently told the news media he hasn’t had a drink in nine months.
But it was the resulting turmoil in his congressional office that drew the attention of the bipartisan House Ethics Committee. The panel launched an investigation into allegations of improper use of taxpayer-paid staff members to carry out menial, personal chores for Garrett and his family and of a hostile workplace environment that created turmoil among staffers.
On Jan. 2, the last day of the 115th Congress — and the last day the Ethics Committee would have jurisdiction over Garrett — the panel released what would be its one and only report of its findings in its investigation. Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said the move was an extraordinary one for the committee and could only mean the members were troubled enough by their findings to want some sort of accounting released to the public and to Congress.
The report detailed numerous accounts of Garrett’s congressional staff performing personal jobs for him and his wife on government time: buying cigarettes for the couple, driving them to the airport for personal trips, helping the Garrett family move and having his car serviced. As the report concluded, “[T]his resulted in a prioritization of Representative Garrett’s and his wife’s personal needs over those of his constituents.”
In past such investigations of other members of Congress, the Ethics Committee and its staff has been able to determine the value of any non-constituent services provided members and forced them to repay the government and taxpayers. But in the Garrett investigation, they were unable to do so because, the committee report claimed, Garrett slow-walked and delayed his responses to investigators and provided incomplete documentation when requested.
The congressman, the report said, “hindered the Committee’s investigation by delaying his document production to the Committee and producing incomplete records without giving an explanation for the missing documents.”
To be fair, we must mention, Garrett released a statement deriding the report as based on “half-truths and whole lies” and “sourced by disgruntled former staffers.” And we will never know the full story because, as the report notes, the clock simply ran out.
The report is no vindication for Garrett, no matter what he may believe. It leaves a permanent cloud over the public service career of an Army veteran, commonwealth’s attorney, state senator and congressman. That’s a shame, whether or not you agree with him politically.