Gallagher discloses old affair, drug use

Documents from his 1979 divorce prompt the GOP gubernatorial candidate to discuss details of his history.

Published June 19, 2006

TALLAHASSEE — Florida gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher acknowledged Monday that an extramarital affair played a role in his divorce 27 years ago and that he had used marijuana “a long, long time ago.”

The unusual disclosure by the state’s chief financial officer, who remarried in 1998, was prompted by the Tampa Tribune, which showed his campaign staff 24 pages from the court file of Gallagher’s 1979 divorce from his first wife, Ann Louise Gallagher.

The documents include partial transcripts from two court proceedings:
- A court hearing in which the lawyer for Gallagher’s wife unsuccessfully sought a restraining order, alleging Gallagher broke into the marital home after the couple separated, stole the dog and nearly hit his mother-in-law.

- A deposition given by Stephanie McBee, then a 26-year-old legislative aide who was estranged from her husband, in which she acknowledged having an affair with Gallagher starting in 1978.

Asked whether she had ever used drugs with Gallagher, McBee didn’t answer after her attorney objected to the question.

“I can’t say I’m real proud of my personal life back when I was married,’’ Gallagher said. “I do take full responsibility for my actions being the reason for the divorce. They speak for themselves. I made some mistakes in that marriage, and I regret those.’’

The revelation could be particularly significant in Gallagher’s quest for the Republican nomination for governor.The longtime politician, once a moderate Republican with a reputation as a proud bachelor, has sought to align his candidacy with the Republican Party’s most ardent, socially conservative voters who can be counted on to vote in the GOP primary.

This new controversy is not the first time in this campaign that Gallagher has been in a harsh light. He has been trailing his primary opponent, Attorney General Charlie Crist, in fundraising and in polls almost since the beginning of the race. And earlier this year, Gallagher faced questions about his investing in insurance companies at a time when he was Florida’s insurance commissioner.

But unlike four months ago, when Gallagher’s campaign stumbled in responding to the stock revelations, Gallagher’s staffers jumped ahead of the bad press Monday. They called a telephone conference with reporters and distributed the unflattering documents themselves.

Gallagher was joined on the conference call by his second wife, Laura. In talking to reporters, Gallagher took responsibility for the failure of his first marriage.

“Divorces are messy,’’ he said. “It was totally my fault.”
Gallagher, who is Catholic, said his rededication to Christ in 1998 has made him a changed man.

“Christ does change lives and I’m a different person because of my relationship with him,” said Gallagher, who remarried in January 1998. The couple have a 7-year-old son, Charlie, his only child.

Shortly after the phone call, prominent social conservatives aligned with Gallagher’s campaign issued statements of support, noting that Gallagher’s current family life made him the conservative’s choice, still.

“We are not electing a priest or a pastor; we are electing a governor,’’ prominent social conservative John Stemberger said in a statement.

Gallagher’s strategy of getting ahead of the news was smart, said Republican strategist Geoffrey Becker. The long-term implications of this news are unclear, but Becker said it’s to Gallagher’s advantage that it’s early in the election cycle and many voters are still not paying attention.

“It’s never good to have a story like this, but he certainly took some of the steam out of it,’’ said Becker, who is neutral in the race.

Both Orlando’s Stemberger and Republican state Rep. Dennis Baxley of Ocala argued Christianity’s tenets of repentance and redemption are borne out in Gallagher’s story. Plus they said they would rather have a family man in the governor’s mansion. Crist is single and once-divorced.

“To me, Tom’s life story is really one of hope,’’ said Baxley, who won national acclaim among social conservatives last year when he led the state legislative fight to keep Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube from being removed. “You can have that kind of problematic family life and repent and renew your commitment to values and have what he has today. I think a lot of people can relate to that.’’

Stemberger said, “There was only one perfect man, and they crucified him 2000 years ago. Let’s hope that Floridians remember at least one thing about Christians — our ability to forgive.”

Gallagher said he didn’t know how the Tribune obtained the court documents, which earlier this year were partially purged and transferred to microfilm as part of the Miami-Dade state court’s record-keeping laws.

Gallagher said he didn’t keep a full copy of the court records and merely distributed what was passed to his campaign.

The documents, partially illegible, show no testimony was taken on his estranged wife’s allegations that he broke into their home. The hearing appeared to have ended with the judge admonishing Gallagher, then a 35-year-old Coconut Grove state house representative, to steer clear of his wife: “You are a public figure. You don’t need any adverse publicity.”

In the McBee deposition, records show attorneys for Gallagher’s first wife asked if McBee had ever used drugs with Gallagher. McBee never answered after her attorney, Tallahassee’s Wilbur Brewton, objected that a judge should rule on the relevance of the question.

Gallagher acknowledged to reporters Monday that he had used marijuana, first telling a reporter it was more than 25 years ago. Later he expanded on the topic, saying he wasn’t using the drug around the time of the divorce and affair, which is when he also was a state House member. He also told reporters he never used any other illegal drug.

McBee, who has since remarried, couldn’t be reached for comments. Brewton, who is a longtime Gallagher supporter and associate, declined to comment without McBee’s permission. Gallagher’s ex-wife also couldn’t be reached.

Laura Gallagher told reporters she was fully aware of the circumstances surrounding her husband’s earlier marriage as well as his use of marijuana before she married him.

“He told me about all of it and he made it very clear about the man he intended to be,’’ Laura Gallagher said.

“He’s done that and more.”

Joni James can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or jjames@sptimes.com