Rep. Radel Joins Capitol's Most Secret Club - Recovering Addicts

Ex-Rep. Patrick Kennedy talks of Congress' secret recovery meetings.

ByABC News
November 20, 2013, 2:52 PM

Nov. 20, 2013 — -- When Rep. Trey Radel pleaded guilty today to cocaine possession and promised to enter rehab, he joined the ranks of one of Capitol Hill's most secretive and exclusive clubs -- addicts.

For more than a decade, members of Congress, struggling with addiction, have met behind closed doors in Georgetown, on Capitol Hill, at a church across the street from the Capitol, and, on some mornings at a hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Sources, bound to the rules of Alcoholics Anonymous, won't expressly identify these gatherings as AA or other 12-step meetings but say they are "a community of recovering people."

Radel is now the only current member of Congress known to be undergoing treatment for addiction, but he is far from the first.

And he may not be the only one. Just last year Jesse Jackson Jr., a Democrat from Illinois resigned his office, partly to go into rehab for drug and alcohol abuse.

Between 1991 to 2009, former congressman Jim Ramstad publicly mentored several congressmen with drug or alcohol problems.

But at least three other members of Congress secretly came to Ramstad seeking help for addiction, he told Ramstad said he did not know how many current members were in treatment.

In almost every instance the veil of secrecy and lies is inopportunely lifted when a congressman is caught by police abusing drugs and there is little choice but to come clean.

"[Members of Congress] represent the country which includes millions of addicts and members aren't exempt," said Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman from Rhode Island who came forward about his addiction to prescription drugs after a 2006 automobile accident in which he drove his car into a Capitol Hill barricade. He later pleaded guilty to driving under the influence.

"We don't talk about addiction in society, and we don't talk about it in Congress. Part of the reason is because of the social stigma, but with members of Congress there is additional worry about how it will impact their political careers," he said.

Kennedy, a Democrat who left Congress in 2011, says members who have been through treatment often seek out those in the early stages of rehab to let them know, "There's light at the end of the tunnel."

Last year, Kennedy visited Jackson, who entered rehab and ultimately resigned his seat following corruption accusations.

Five years earlier, Kennedy was in the same clinic and was visited by Ramstad, a Republican from Minnesota at the time and the Capitol's most outspoken recovering addict.

"Ramstad came and visited me at the Mayo Clinic," Kennedy recalled. "He said, 'Things will get better. I was where you are.'"

From 1991 to his departure from Congress in 2009, Ramstad was a beacon to members willing to admit they were struggling with addiction.

Ramstad found his way into recovery after a bender landed him in a North Dakota jail. In 1981, as freshman in the Minnesota state senate he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

Publically, Ramstad acted as an unofficial sponsor for Kennedy and former Rep. Phil Crane, an Illinois Republican.

When Kennedy and Ramstad left Congress, recovery no longer had a public face on Capitol Hill. Both men said they were aware of members currently attending meetings, but worried some of the institutions they created to help members cope and find help, including a weekly steak dinner, had disappeared.

Both men were also vocal in drafting the recently passed Mental Health Parity Law, which Kennedy sponsored, and which funds some federal addiction programs.