Garn's bombshell blows away lawmakers
It was June of 2002, just five days before the Republican primary for Utah's 1st Congressional District, and Kevin and Tanya Garn were frantically trying to reach Cheryl Maher.
"Please, please call me," read an e-mail from Tanya Garn's "supermommie" account. "I know the most healing thing you can do is talk to me."
Maher had been talking to reporters, alleging a 1985 encounter with Garn, her boss at the time, when she was 15 and he was 30 and married. Garn had resigned as Utah House majority leader a day before the flurry of e-mails began.
On Thursday, a quarter-century after the encounter, Garn, who returned to the House as majority leader in 2008, acknowledged to The Salt Lake Tribune that he had been naked in a hot tub with the teenage Maher and paid her $150,000 as part of an agreement to conceal the story.
"I cannot allow one foolish mistake to continue to shadow my life," Garn said later in an emotional statement delivered on the floor of the Utah House to his stunned colleagues. "At this point, I would rather be open and honest about this than continue to live in fear."
Maher claims more happened that night in 1985, but refuses to provide details. She also alleges there have been other women. Garn insists there was no sexual contact with Maher and denies having affairs.
The revelation was a gut-punch on the normally festive closing night of the session, which opened under a cloud after the sudden resignation of Garn's counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, after he was arrested for drunken driving weeks before the Legislature convened.
"To basically have it bookend the legislative session is really quite striking," said University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank.
The nondisclosure deal between Maher and Garn -- which Garn says she has clearly violated -- took months to finalize, according to documents provided to The Tribune by Maher.
After an initial meeting with Garn and his wife in Maher's LDS bishop's office, Garn sent her a check from his personal account for $20,000, which she rejected. Maher said her husband at the time wanted more.
"I will be happy to pay $150,000 to Cheryl and hope that will bring some degree of peace in her life," Garn wrote in a Jan. 21, 2003, e-mail --- months after the wealthy business owner, who has interests in everything from banks to hotels, had lost the congressional primary.
In a handwritten note dated Jan. 29, 2003, he apologized for injecting "all this legal stuff in this process of healing and restitution." But he asked the Mahers to review some legal documents and let him know if they were acceptable. "As soon as I receive the document, I will send you a check. Thanks, Kev."
There was periodic contact afterward. They met in Boston in 2006 and Garn paid for her to travel from New Hampshire to attend her high school reunion in Utah in 2007. In 2008, Maher sent a letter to LDS President Thomas S. Monson, laying out her allegations against Garn. She later contacted Garn's son via e-mail, saying she had sought the church's help "with getting restitution from him."
"In 2002, when he 'paid me off,' that's what it was, a 'pay off,' as I spoke with him over the last couple of years I have enough information to go to the press and expose him," she wrote.
On Sunday, the story started to become public after Maher sent an e-mail to Democratic House leaders.
"[I] couldn't even put into words my reaction," said Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, who turned the e-mail over to House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, Monday morning.
Clark said he met with Garn on Tuesday morning. "Kevin shared what I would perceive is his side of the story, and it became evident that it was going to become public," Clark said. The discussion included Garn sharing a series of e-mails. Those exchanges, obtained by The Tribune , call into question Maher's motives in coming forward with her story and, Garn supporters say, her mental health.
On Wednesday, Maher sent a copy of the e-mail earlier provided to lawmakers to The Tribune . In two lengthy interviews Thursday, Garn did not deny Maher's basic narrative and ultimately decided to make his public announcement on the floor of the House Thursday night.
Before Gov. Gary Herbert entered the chamber to address the House, he embraced Garn, put his hands on his shoulders and appeared to offer consolation to the leader.
As Garn stood slightly hunched reading his confession, the House was silent and shocked representatives exchanged stunned looks. Some were in tears as he admitted his indiscretion and apologized to his family and the body.
Clark spoke from the dais, offering his support, saying "I know not of the man you speak, but I know the man I consider a friend, a leader and an asset to the State of Utah. ... We hope you would remain with us."
The speaker's comments drew a loud ovation from representatives -- a show of support that some observers thought was distasteful.
Conservative blogger Holly Richardson was on hand for the bombshell and said she understands that, while Garn's colleagues may have been paying respect for his service, "I still thought it was outrageous."
"He just admitted to paying $150,000 to a woman who he had had an inappropriate encounter with when he was twice her age," she said. "He was married. He was in the hot tub naked with this young girl and to have any kind of applause or anything was just stunning."
"I think there was a tremendous sense of shock," Litvack said of Garn's surprise announcement Thursday. "Obviously, I'm struggling -- a lot of people are struggling -- right now with making sense of all this."
Litvack said it is an issue to be handled between Garn and his family and his constituents, and he hoped it would not be used as a political cudgel.
Going forward, Garn will have to decide his own future, although he said in his statement that he hopes to continue to serve his constituents.
"The decision is his whether he's going to continue his service," said Clark. "Right now he's contemplating that. ... I don't know the answer to that. I guess we will in a week."
If he chooses to stay in the Legislature, Garn has to file his candidacy by Friday. One Republican opponent, Chris Crowder, filed to run against him Friday, but said it was unrelated to his recent disclosure.
"This is not the kind of attention you want to have drawn to yourself," said Burbank. "On the other hand, he's a guy who's got a strong track record. He's obviously worked his way up to majority leader in the House. He's got a lot of benefits going for him. The question really will be: 'How do others in the Republican Party take this?' "
Garn could not be reached Friday. Davis County Republican Chairwoman Shirley Bowhuis said she has not spoken with the representative but expects he will share his decision when he makes up his mind.
"My thoughts and prayers are with Kevin and his family and, unfortunately, the young lady, too," Bowhuis said.