WASHINGTON — Rep. Christopher Lee, a second-term Republican lawmaker representing western New York state, abruptly resigned from Congress on Wednesday afternoon after flirtatious e-mails — including a photo of the congressman shirtless — were posted by an online gossip site.
In a brief statement, Lee referred only obliquely to "this distraction," apologizing "deeply and sincerely" for harm he caused his family, staff and constituents.
Just hours earlier, the website Gawker posted e-mails Lee exchanged with an unnamed, single 34-year-old woman in response to a personal ad she posted on Craigslist. In the e-mails, apparently sent from Lee's personal account under his actual name, the married 46-year-old congressman claimed to be a 39-year-old divorced lobbyist. In the photo, he flexes a bicep.
Lee's initial e-mail described himself as "a very fit fun classy guy. ... I promise not to disappoint," he wrote. The woman he contacted released them to Gawker after she searched on the Internet for his name and discovered he was not who he claimed to be.
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"I have made profound mistakes and I promise to work as hard as I can to seek their forgiveness," Lee said in his statement. "The challenges we face in western New York and across the country are too serious for me to allow this distraction to continue, and so I am announcing that I have resigned my seat in Congress effective immediately."
Lee's office offered little explanation to Gawker, but said Lee had previously announced to staff that his e-mail had been hacked. His statement announcing the resignation offered no clues, but as he left the Capitol on Wednesday, the congressman told a Fox News reporter: "I have to work this out with my wife."
Lee, who was an executive with a multinational manufacturing company, had little political experience before his election to Congress in 2008.
He was wooed into the open-seat race by state and national Republican leaders in New York's 26th District in part because of his willingness to spend personal funds on the campaign.
He won in the traditionally Republican district even as Democrats boosted their congressional majority on the coattails of a Barack Obama victory. During the Republican wave of 2010, Lee was re-elected with 74 percent of the vote. In his brief career he was known for focusing on fiscal issues and government accountability.
The office of House Speaker John Boehner declined to comment Wednesday. As he accepted the gavel in January, the Ohio Republican promised "a government that is honest, accountable and responsive" to the American people.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, may now call a special election to fill the vacancy, the second in the state in a matter of months. A vacancy in the neighboring 29th District was filled in November after Democrat Eric Massa resigned, also over alleged indiscretions in his personal life. A Republican succeeded Massa and a Republican is likely to take Lee's seat.
In just the second month of the 112th Congress, Lee becomes the second representative to quit the House. California Rep. Jane Harman, a Democrat, on Tuesday announced her resignation to accept a leadership position with the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington.