House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday said New York Republican Chris Lee did the right thing in resigning after a report that he flirted online with a strange woman and sent her a shirtless photo of himself.
Boehner refused to say whether he spoke to Lee or urged him to resign after an online gossip site posted a provocative email exchange between the married first-term congressman and a woman who posted an ad on Craigslist.
"Congressman Lee made his own decision that he thought was in his own best interest and the interest of his family," Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters.
The 46-year-old father of one issued a statement late Wednesday announcing his immediate resignation, and apologizing for "the harm that my actions have caused my family, my staff and my constituents."
Last summer, the Capitol Hill paper Roll Call reported that Boehner had warned some Republicans, including Lee, against unseemly partying with female lobbyists.
"I've had members in here where I thought they had crossed the line," Boehner was quoted as saying at the time. "I have had others I thought were approaching the line."
Now speaker of the House, Boehner refused to comment on that, saying only: "I believe that members of Congress should be held to the highest ethical standards."
The website Gawker reported that Lee had responded to a woman's ad in the "Women for Men" section of Craigslist personals. She wrote a post asking "will someone prove to me not all CL men look like toads?"
He responded with a shirtless photo, describing himself as a "very fit fun classy" 39-year-old lobbyist. In a later email, he said he was divorced.
Gawker said the woman cut off contact after searching for him online and finding out he lied about his age and occupation.
Lee's resignation comes almost a year after Democrat Eric Massa resigned his seat in western New York's 29th Congressional District amid an investigation into whether he sexually harassed male staffers. Massa gave contradictory explanations for his behavior, acknowledging he groped and tickled a staffer in a nonsexual way and wrestled with others at his 50th birthday party, but then denying any groping occurred.
Lee served on the House Ways and Means Committee and was active on economic revitalization issues. He has a business background stemming from his family's manufacturing enterprises.
"Chris Lee was a well respected member of Congress," says former Republican Rep. Rick Lazio.
Lazio says he worked with Lee on economic issues and that Lee was an up-and-comer in the Republican Party.
Constituents in Lee's district are reacting with everything from disappointment to disbelief.
Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas Langworthy, meanwhile, says the party has plenty of good candidates who could run for the seat once Gov. Andrew Cuomo schedules a special election.
With upstate expected to lose at least one seat to redistricting though, the long-term fate of the district is unclear.
New York's GOP Chairman Ed Cox said he hopes Cuomo won't try to help steer the spot to a Democrat.
Republicans are concerned the governor could leave the seat open until November, by simply not calling a special election. That would give a Democratic candidate time to fundraise for the election in the predominantly GOP district.
A special election held soon might produce a better scenario for Republicans.
Cox said it would be wrong to leave the district without representation in Washington.
Cuomo has not specifically said whether he plans to call a special election.