The Strange Saga of David Wu

How did the scandal-plagued congressman survive seven terms in office with a history of sexual assault?

Another sex scandal has resulted in another Democrat congressman being forced to resign. On Tuesday, David Wu (D-OR), announced he would be stepping down following a "resolution" of the debt crisis, amid accusations that he participated in "unwanted and aggressive sexual behavior" with the 18-year-old daughter of a friend and campaign donor. The 56-year-old, seven-term representative claims the encounter was consensual. Wu had originally intended to remain in office until the end of his term in 2013, but was forced to reconsider when House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi made a formal request on Monday for an ethics investigation into the congressman's behavior. "The time has come to hand on the privilege of high office," said Wu in a written statement. "I cannot care for my family the way I wish while serving in Congress and fighting these very serious allegations."

Wu's announcement came only minutes after both of Oregon's senators, Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkely, called on him to resign, citing accusation of inappropriate sexual behavior they characterized as "both jarring and exceptionally serious." The senators contended such behavior had effectively compromised his ability to serve his constituents. "While he--like every American--deserves an opportunity to address those accusations and defend himself, our constituents in the first district of Oregon deserve a member in the House of Representatives whose main focus is fighting for their interests," said the senators in a prepared statement. "This is a critical time for our state and our nation and Oregonians need every member of their Congressional delegation to be effective. While no one takes pleasure in asking a colleague to resign, we believe he can no longer be an effective representative for our shared constituents and should, in the best interest of Oregon, step down."

The alleged encounter reportedly took place last November in California's Orange County. Members of the congressman's staff became aware of the incident last May when the woman involved left a phone message at Wu's Portland office alleging the congressman had "forced himself upon her." Sources who spoke with the Oregonian under the condition that they remain anonymous, independently claimed they had direct knowledge of the details. The paper reported that one of the staffers who heard the message characterized the woman as "breathing heavily" and "distraught" over the encounter which allegedly took place on Thanksgiving weekend. Sources were told the women went outside and Wu followed. That's when the sexual encounter allegedly took place.

Staffers are also reporting that the woman did not go to the police because she believed that she had insufficient evidence to press charges. There were no witnesses to the encounter, and she believed she would be at a serious disadvantage in a "he said, she said" claim against a seven-term congressman. Last Friday, the woman, along with her parents, declined to speak to a reporter who showed up at their home. A statement issued by David Swanson, an Orange County lawyer whose website says he specializes in criminal law, said, "They are not interested in talking to" the press.

This is not the first incident in which Wu has been accused sexual misbehavior. In 2004, the Oregonian broke a story about an assault which took place at Stanford University in 1976, when Wu tried to force himself on a former girlfriend who had broken off their relationship. The then 21-year-old Wu was brought to the campus police annex where he was questioned by patrol commander Raoul K. Niemeyer. Niemeyer reported that Wu showed up with "scratches on his face and neck, and his T-shirt was stretched out of shape." As with this incident, Wu claimed the encounter was consensual. "We just, I was with my girlfriend, and we just got a little carried away," Niemeyer recalled Wu saying. Yet a Stanford professor recalled that the woman had told him Wu "angrily attacked her," and an assistant dean who counseled the woman said she characterized the incident as "attempted rape," adding that Wu "used a pillow to muffle her screams."

The woman declined to press charges, and Wu was never formally arrested. But apparently the decision by the Oregonian to publish the story, which they claimed "figured in the unexpected resignation of his campaign manager" during his first run for Congress in 1998, forced Wu's hand. Citing "inexcusable behavior on my part," Wu released in a statement on the matter. "As a 21-year-old, I hurt someone I cared very much about. I take full responsibility for my actions and I am very sorry," he said. "This single event forever changed my life and the person that I have become." Despite the admission, Wu was re-elected in 2004 by voters who said they disliked his opponent's attempt to use the incident against him.

Yet the person David Wu became was hardly exemplary. Three days before the November 2010 election, Wu's senior staffers became so concerned with the congressman's erratic behavior, they demanded that he be hospitalized for psychiatric treatment. Words such "loud and angry" and "kooky" were used to describe his behavior in private and, of more concern to the staff, in front of potential voters. "This is way beyond acceptable levels and the charade needs to end NOW," wrote Lisa Grove, a senior campaign pollster, in an e-mail to colleagues after four days of weird behavior by the congressman. "No enabling by any potential enablers, he needs help and you need to be protected. Nothing else matters right now. Nothing else," she added.

The tipping point apparently occurred on Oct. 30th when a photograph of Wu dressed in a bright orange tiger suit with a wide grin on his face was sent to a female staffer at 1 am from his congressional email account. Included was a message intended to make it seem like his daughter sent it. "You're the best, but my Dad made me say that, even though you threatened to shut down his campaign," it read. One half-hour later it was followed by an equally strange email ostensibly from Wu's son claiming that "what he does when he's wasted is send emails, not harass people he works with." After his re-election campaign was over, six staffers resigned.

In an interview on Good Morning America last February, Wu admitted sending the photo and the emails. “Last October was not a good month, it was very stressful. I did some things, I said some things which I sincerely regret now. And as a result of those things I saw fit to consult professional help, I got the help I needed then. I am continuing to consult medical help as I need it and I’m in a good place now,” he told George Stephanopoulos.

The Oregonian reported that Wu's strange behavior can be traced back as far as 2003 when he appeared to "go catatonic before a crucial vote on Medicare." The paper further noted that his behavior ranged from normal to disturbed over a period of years, with each episode growing "increasingly erratic." Wu, who was hospitalized on election day 2008, reportedly as the result of an adverse reaction to a prescription drug taken for "anxiety and stress," claimed last year's odd behavior was the "culmination of a period of mental health challenges that began in 2008 as marital issues led toward his separation from his wife." He further claimed last year's outbursts were the result of "stress from a tough campaign, a dissolving marriage and taking care of his children, ages 11 and 13." Emails from his staff prior to the 2010 election indicate Wu may have had a drinking problem as well.

And now it's over. “It has been the greatest privilege of my life to be a United States Congressman. Rare is the nation in which an immigrant child can become a national political figure. I thank God and my parents for the privilege of being an American,” said Wu in a statement released by his office. Thus ends the career of the first Chinese American to serve in the House of Representatives. For Democrats recently buffeted by Anthony Weiner's equally bizarre behavior, it is no doubt a blessed relief.

In today's politically charged atmosphere, there is no doubt that some will attempt to extrapolate a bigger meaning from this. That is unfortunate. By all reasonable accounts, Mr. Wu's demons are not particular to one political party or the other. Mental illness is an equal opportunity affliction. If the current accusations rise to the level of criminality, by all means prosecute him. As for bizarre behavior, Mr. Wu is hardly alone. Voters who would re-elect a man after an admitted sexual assault have demonstrated some rather odd priorities of their own.