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It seems that every time a member of Congress divorces his spouse, has an affair, consorts with a prostitute, or exchanges racy emails with a teenage page, the media brings out charges of hypocrisy and trumpets the betrayal of the “family values” platform. However, many of the accused didn’t actually run on “family values”–they just happen to be Republicans, and that’s good enough for a press too lazy to do its homework. That’s why it’s so refreshing to uncover a true, unreconstructed, all-American family values hypocrite–Congressman Ric Keller of Florida.
Keller—whose office did not reply to requests for comment for this story—ran for Congress in 2000 and won strong support from evangelical leader James Dobson. According to the Orlando Weekly, Dobson “ran radio spots for Keller and campaign literature quoted him saying that Keller was ‘the obvious choice for those who care about the biblical values upon which our nation was founded.’” Keller also ran as an outsider and mortal enemy of Washington, D.C., and was strongly backed by U.S. Term Limits (USTL) because, unlike his opponent, he vowed to serve no more than eight years in the House. USTL hailed Keller as “a true citizen legislator,” saying it was tired of hearing “empty term-limits rhetoric” from career politicians.
But that was then. Since winning office, Keller has divorced his wife and married a young woman who worked on his congressional staff. I spoke with four people, each of whom would only speak with me on condition of anonymity, and each of whom told me that Keller’s relationship with the staffer began while he was still married. In addition, just weeks after winning re-election to his fourth term last fall, Keller decided that term limits weren’t actually such a good idea and declared that he would run again in 2008.
Consider the following chronology, which is based on multiple interviews, public records, and previously published accounts:
November 2000: Ric Keller, 36, won the House seat in the 8th district of Florida, which includes his hometown of Orlando. As an ardent proponent of family values, Keller used his wife–Cathy Schott, whom he married in 1992–as a frequent prop for his campaign. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Cathy, two years Ric’s junior, “was mentioned in his press releases. She was featured in his very first TV ad, where Keller told voters: ‘I believe we should send people to Washington with sound moral character.’”
This “family values” congressman left his wife as she was battling a degenerative disease that impacts both sight and hearing.
January 3, 2001: Ric Keller was inaugurated as a member of the House freshman class. Beginning work for Keller that day was Danielle “Dee Dee” Michel, who held the title of staff assistant and received a starting salary of about $2,000 per month. Michel turned 23 the day she started work in the front office answering phones and greeting visitors. Keller, who I’m told liked to ruminate about his conservative political positions while dining at Hooter’s, hired a number of strikingly beautiful young female staffers. These included Jacyln Norris, who later married Kevin Madden, now spokesman for Mitt Romney’s campaign, and Jessica Ferguson. Hill staffers joked about the “Keller girls.”
Fall 2001: A number of Hill staffers and lobbyists became aware that Keller and Michel seemed unusually close, and talk about their relationship began circulating in political circles. Michel was transferred down to Keller’s Orlando office and given the job of campaign finance director. This represented a significant leap from her original position. She also remained on the office payroll, making her one of six Keller employees who were getting two checks–one from the campaign and one for her staff work. (That was a situation that at least one watchdog group found most unusual.)
June-2002: Keller was a frequent companion of Michel’s when he returned to Orlando from Washington. In late June, the pair attended a Fort Lauderdale-area campaign event sponsored by marine industry interests. (That years Keller strongly supported a bill that exempted the “recreational marine” industry from certain labor rules.) Keller and Michel met with crewmembers aboard the Wehr Nuts, a 124-foot mega-yacht. The congressman overnighted in South Florida.
November 2002: According to House disclosure records, Keller and Michel traveled together on the 12th and 16th of the month. On the 18th, campaign disclosure records show that Michel received an early year-end bonus of $1,000. Disclosure filings showed no other Keller staffer received a bonus during the election cycle. Keller and his wife separated later in November.
December 2002: Michel departed from Keller’s staff. From January of 2001, when she started to work for Keller, and her departure date, she received a combined total of roughly $68,000–$17,000 for her work on his campaign and $51,000 for her work on his staff.
January 2003: According to the Orlando Weekly, “Keller isn’t answering questions” about the separation, but sources “close to the congressman” told the newspaper that he had “been unhappy with his marriage for two years.” (His unhappiness, thus, could be traced to January of 2001.) The sources suggest to the Weekly that the root problem was that “he [Keller] is outgoing while Cathy is quiet and reserved.” Those sources don’t mention that this “family values” congressman left his wife as she was battling Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that impacts both sight and hearing.
Michel received a combined total of roughly $68,000–$17,000 for her work on Keller’s campaign and $51,000 for her work on his staff.
Early-2003 (estimated): Michel began to work for Hammond & Associates, Keller’s political fundraising firm. The firm is based in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Between 2001 and 2006, Keller’s campaign paid Hammond more than $211,000. In 2006, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington issued a report listing Keller as one of 72 members of Congress who used campaign funds to pay relatives or their relatives’ employers during the prior six years. Among the firms that employed lawmakers’ relatives, Hammond ranked eighth highest in payments received.
March 5, 2003: Divorce finalized for Ric and Cathy Keller.
June 2004: According to the Orlando Sentinel, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s website “listed [Michel] as a contact for a Keller campaign fund-raiser where political action committees were asked to pay $2,500 to attend a weekend of festivities in Orlando, which included a ‘reception, theme park and golf for up to four people.’”
March 19, 2005: Keller wed Michel. His chief of staff, Bryan Malenius, told the Orlando Sentinel that he is “positive” that his boss “would not want to answer questions about when the two began dating.” Asked about that same question, ex-wife Cathy Keller said, “I don’t think, for the sake of the children, I can say anything about that.” (Cathy Keller declined to comment for this story.)
May 3, 2007: Keller filed his most recent financial disclosure statement with the House. Michel is still identified as an employee of Hammond & Associates–yet Hammond & Associates never seems to have listed Michel as an employee on its website. Did she work there or not? Was she an independent contractor? If so, did she raise money for Keller? Did she get a salary or a percentage of what she brought in? There’s no way of knowing for sure, since neither Hammond & Associates nor Keller replied to a request for comment. (As of early this year, Keller has primarily relied on a firm called Bellwether Consulting Group for fundraising help.)
Today, the one-time “Citizen Legislator” sits atop a campaign war chest of almost half a million dollars, much of it, according to the Orlando Sentinel, donated “from interests affected by legislation that comes before Keller’s two committees: judiciary and education.” Some outsider. Life in Congress has been good to Keller, who by all accounts enjoys the status, star power, and personal attention it brings him. It’s easy to see why he has reconsidered his ideas over both term limits and the sanctity of family values.
More from Ken Silverstein:
Commentary — November 17, 2015, 6:41 pm
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"She never thanked me, never looked at me—melted away into the miserable night, in the strangest manner I ever saw. I have seen many strange things, but not one that has left a deeper impression on my memory than the dull impassive way in which that worn-out heap of misery took that piece of money, and was lost."