WASHINGTON – Asking her boss whether the rumor was true – that he was having an affair with a part-time staff member – was hard to do.
Maybe the hardest thing Renee Howell has done in the eight years she has worked for Rep. Mark Souder.
And, six days later, Howell is still reeling from Souder’s admission, first to her, then to the GOP leadership, then to his employees, then to the northeast Indiana constituents who have voted him into office every two years since 1994.
Somewhere in that gut-wrenching week, Souder told his wife that he was cheating – involved in what he described as “a mutual relationship” – with Tracy Meadows Jackson, who has been on the Souder congressional payroll for nearly six years as a part-time employee in the Indiana office.
Until she resigned Tuesday, Jackson’s job was to meet regularly with Souder to conduct a scripted interview on matters as diverse as what books Souder was reading to new jobs at the GM plant. The segments were aired on WFCV-AM 1090, a Christian radio station in Fort Wayne, local-access cable stations and his congressional website.
One video, which has been removed from the congressional website, has a new home on YouTube, where more than 28,000 people have watched Jackson ask Souder questions about a House hearing on abstinence education.
The mocking comments about that 5 1/2 -minute exchange that have been posted on YouTube and the ridicule some commentators have heaped on Souder for discussing abstinence with his mistress are painful for Howell.
Nonetheless, she is shocked and disappointed with Souder.
“I confronted him, and he admitted it to me,” Howell said of the telephone conversation she had with Souder a week ago today.
Howell said the call was prompted by an inquiry from a news outlet, the second the staff had received. The first came in March, when a TV station said it had a tip that Souder had been apprehended with Jackson at a state-owned park.
She said Souder employees asked the Indiana Department of Natural Resources whether the tip could be confirmed. When the agency said there was no record of any arrest or citation, Howell said, the staff told Souder: “You won’t believe this rumor!”
Souder’s reaction, Howell said, was surprise.
Howell said she couldn’t believe the rumor because it didn’t fit with the image she had of Souder after working side by side for eight years, including seven as his chief of staff, the top aide in a 20-person congressional office that is spread between Washington and offices in the Fort Wayne region.
But as the rumors and reporters’ questions kept coming, Howell asked again last week. This time, Souder said it was true.
“I – and everyone else – was very shocked because it’s not consistent with the person Mark is and his behavior in the past,” Howell said.
She said Souder didn’t provide details of the affair with Jackson, but that she gathered the relationship had been off and on for some time.
When Howell and Souder talked last week, she said, “It was clear to me he wanted to do the right thing.”
They discussed “the mechanics of how we were going to go through that and get to (his public admission and resignation). That took almost four days,” she said.
In the meantime, Rep. Mike Pence, R-6th, had heard the rumors, too.
He confronted Souder on Thursday.
“I had a reporter approach me … late last week,” Pence said. “I approached Mark on the House floor Thursday to inform him that I had had an inquiry. At that time, he said he had had an extramarital relationship.
“In the days that followed, there was talk that it was a staffer. Mark called me on Sunday and told me it was a staffer,” said Pence, who holds the No. 3 position in the GOP House leadership.
In that conversation, Pence said, Souder was “very distraught.” Pence told Souder to resign and on Monday informed the House Ethics Committee that Souder acknowledged having a sexual relationship with an employee.
The top House Republican, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, also said Wednesday that he learned of the affair between Souder and his $15,500-a-year employee on Saturday.
Boehner said he had heard rumors “a day or two” before his conversation with Souder, and that what he told Souder “will remain between Mr. Souder and I.”
Boehner refused to answer whether there should be an ethics committee investigation.
But, he said, “I made it clear I will not tolerate behavior that’s unbecoming to the member and will take action.”
When the GOP leadership learned of Souder’s sexual relationship with an employee – and what they did with that information – is important because of the possibility of an ethics investigation.
When Souder resigns on Friday, he will no longer come under the jurisdiction of the ethics committee. But if Republican leaders were aware a lawmaker was conducting an affair with someone on his payroll and did not act, it could trigger an inquiry.
Republicans called for a House Ethics Committee investigation this year when it appeared top Democrats were aware of complaints that a Democratic lawmaker had sexually harassed his aides.
In that case, the ethics committee has interviewed leadership aides and the No. 2 Democrat, Capitol Hill news outlets have reported.
Howell said Wednesday there had been no overtures from the ethics committee and, in fact, she informed Boehner’s chief of staff over the weekend.
By Wednesday, Howell had had a week to absorb the information that other staff members didn’t learn until Tuesday, right before Souder read a statement admitting the affair and announcing his resignation, effective Friday.
She said her colleagues were “devastated.”
“It was very disappointing, very upsetting.”
Howell, who had the added stress of preparing for her wedding on Friday, said she shares those feelings.
“But, at the same time, he’s just a human, as equally human as any one of us. People fall and fail all the time.”
Despite it all, Howell said, “it’s been an honor to work for him. He is one of the smartest people I know. I’ve learned a lot.”