Crist confronts paternity claim

As he did 18 years ago, the candidate denies an election-eve leak that he fathered a child with a woman active in the GOP.

Published September 4, 2006

Charlie Crist confronted an 18-year-old claim that he fathered a child with a St. Petersburg woman, calling it "absolutely false" on Sunday as a secret campaign was launched near the end of the Republican primary for governor to leak the paternity dispute to the press.

Documents faxed anonymously to the St. Petersburg Times show that in 1989 Rebecca O'Dell Wharrie said Crist was the father of a baby she wanted to place for adoption. Crist signed an affidavit denying paternity and relinquishing any parental rights.

"Parenthood by myself is not possible as I never consummated the act necessary for parenthood," Crist stated in the affidavit signed in May 1989. In a handwritten note at the bottom, he added "This should make clear the adoptive process. Thanks, Charlie."

The records, from the sealed adoption file of a girl who was born in June of 1989, were leaked to a handful of reporters four days ago. They were e-mailed to reporters across the state Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday Crist addressed the matter.

"The whole thing, I mean, it's just absolutely false," Crist told reporters outside of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville after attending the service. "It's obviously a last-minute ditch effort to try to resurrect a campaign, and it's sad, and it's the most scurrilous thing I think I've ever heard of in Florida politics. And I'm not going to honor it with any further comment."

Republican rival Tom Gallagher, whose first marriage and personal finances have been scrutinized during the campaign, said Sunday he only learned of the allegations when his staffers told him late last week.

"Listen, I know how tough it is when personal stuff is brought up," Gallagher said. "I've told my staff, we're not running a personal campaign and if anyone gets involved in making comments about someone's personal life, they're fired."

Wharrie, now Rebecca O'Dell Townsend, 47, said in interviews with the Times that she met Crist one night at a Feather Sound nightclub and they went back to his St. Petersburg condominium early in the morning.

Townsend, who has since become a lawyer and was appointed to the state's Film & Entertainment Advisory Council by Gov. Jeb Bush, said she later confronted Crist at a Republican function and said she was pregnant. She was separated from her husband at the time of her alleged encounter with Crist and went through an antagonistic custody battle for years.

After the girl was born, Crist signed another document that again denied paternity and consented to the adoption.

"The documents speak for themselves," said Crist, 50, when asked about them again in Fort Lauderdale Sunday. "I denied it ever happened. There's nothing else to say."

Townsend, who has not seen the girl since she was adopted, said Crist could have insisted on a paternity blood test.

"If that wasn't his child, he could very easily have proved it," she said.

The Crist campaign gave reporters copies of St. Petersburg police incident reports, showing Townsend was committed for involuntary psychiatric examination under the Baker Act in March 1989 and took an overdose of sleeping pills in 1993.

"That period in my life was so dark and so awful and I almost didn't make it through," Townsend said. "I was very depressed."

Court and Florida Bar records show she also has made various allegations of child abuse, rape, and domestic violence involving spouses, and child abuse allegations at one church where she worked. None of the allegations were substantiated.

Townsend, by several accounts, put her emotional troubles behind her and became a respected appellate attorney. She is active with the Christian Coalition and speaks to conservative groups about the U.S. Constitution. She is a Gallagher supporter.

"In my dealings with her on the film commission, she has been nothing but an absolute professional," said Ann Herberger, a Republican fundraiser who recently started serving with Townsend on the Film & Entertainment Advisory Council.

Joni James, Steve Bousquet, and Chris Tisch contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.