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Saturday, July 30, 2005

Scandal shadows Northeast Pa. Congressman Donald L. Sherwood - Violence and Sex With Foreign National Less Than Half His Age

Scandal shadows Northeast Pa. congressman, hometown: "Scandal shadows Northeast Pa. congressman, hometown
Saturday, July 30, 2005

By Bill Toland, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

TUNKHANNOCK, Pa. -- In this old lumber town, part of the state's conservative northeast, the Sherwoods are the local version of the Kennedys: wealthy, iconic and, now, because of U.S. Rep. Donald L. Sherwood, knee-deep in scandal.

Sherwood, 64, a Republican, is embroiled in a salacious, he-said, she-said affair with a Peruvian-born woman named Cynthia Ore, 29. Ore alleges that her five-year relationship with Sherwood, who is married with three grown daughters, turned violent.

News of the relationship began to dribble out of Washington, D.C., at the end of April, when a political foe sent a copy of a police report to the Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre and other papers. The report, and the newspaper story that followed, said police visited Sherwood's Washington apartment in September after Ore called 911 to tell police that, during the course of a back rub, Sherwood had tried to choke her.

He denied that, saying he never choked her, and that she was the one who interrupted the back rub when she "jumped up" and went to the bathroom to call 911.

No criminal charges were filed, but a civil suit has been. In June, Ore sued Sherwood for $5.5 million, saying he bruised her, punched her and yanked her hair, and that police didn't take her charges seriously. She stayed with him through the abuse, the suit says, because Sherwood promised to marry her. Sherwood, while saying Ore's lawsuit, in general, and the accusations of abuse, in particular, are without merit, has admitted to the affair.

He'd kept quiet, offering only a quick apology for the "pain" he's caused, until 10 days ago, when he filed his response to Ore's lawsuit and issued a more in-depth statement:

"For about five years, I had an affair I deeply regret," the statement says. "Although it was intermittent and ended last year, nothing I say can diminish the pain and hurt I have caused my wife and family. While I can't change or erase what I did, I accept full responsibility for my behavior, and I apologize to my wife, my family and to the people I represent in Congress."

He added, "I want to be absolutely clear that I never physically hurt or abused Ms. Ore. I will defend myself to the fullest extent possible against these malicious and baseless allegations." In the court papers, filed in Washington, D.C., Sherwood says he can't remember how he met Ore, while Ore says they met at a Young Republicans meeting in 1999.

Ore's attorney, Patrick Regan, declined to comment on Sherwood's statement.

Around Sherwood's rural, 13-county congressional district, people are just as likely to be suspicious as they are to be sympathetic. Sherwood's reputation as an upstanding, family-values politician is now sullied by the scent of hypocrisy, some say.

"My problem is not with the fact that the guy decided to fool around. Guys do that," said John Braun, a retiree and registered Republican who lives 15 miles west of Tunkhannock. Braun's problem, he said, is that he feels his intelligence has been insulted by Sherwood's story that Ore abruptly "jumped up" and ran to the bathroom in mid-back rub, for no good reason.

"To me, that doesn't ring like an event that could have actually occurred that way," Braun said.

But in leafy Tunkhannock, where Sherwood's name still graces the wall of a main street car dealership, the man is more likely to be given doubt's benefit.

"He's human," said Paul Litwin III, a lawyer with an office on Tunkhannock's short business strip. He noted that police had investigated Ore's September phone call and declined to press charges. "If she's lying about that, there's a possibility that she's lying about the abuse," Litwin said. He added that "any type of abuse" would be unforgiveable if Ore's accounts were proven true.

But if they're not true, Sherwood's affair was private, Litwin said, and shouldn't have played out in the papers. "Most people I speak with are more sympathetic toward the family than disgusted toward him," he said.

Many defenders in this town were reluctant to talk about Sherwood's fortunes, protective of one of their own. The Sherwoods still keep a home and do business here, eating at in-town restaurants and buying arrangements from the local florist.

In his pre-Congress life, Sherwood lived by the all-American model of service and hard work. He went to Dartmouth College, joined the Army, opened a car dealership at age 26. When his father died, Sherwood inherited part of the family estate, worth $1.4 million at the time.

Sherwood's supporters think so much of him here that a local media chain, Times Shamrock Communications, initially declined to cover the Sherwood saga, which most newspapers or TV outlets would have considered newsworthy. After the police report became public, The Scranton Times, one of three papers in the chain, criticized the Times Leader for writing about it.

"Where is the connection between the politician's private moral life and his public performance?" Lawrence Beaupre, managing editor of The Scranton Times, wrote in a letter to his readers. The Times Leader, he said, was guilty of "sanctimonious self-righteousness" in its decision to publish a story.

Times Leader Managing Editor David Iseman answered in a column of his own, saying that the "alliance" of papers and TV stations that initially declined to report on the hubbub was neglecting its duty. He said the inter-media sparring "kind of wasted a little bit of our time."

The papers are 20 miles away from each other. The Tribune and The Citizens' Voice of Wilkes-Barre, the two other Shamrock papers, also refused to write about Sherwood, at first.

Whether the allegations affect Sherwood's political career is unclear. His district is heavily Republican, and no Democrat has challenged him since his second congressional race in 2000, when he defeated Pat Casey, son of the late governor and brother of state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr.

GOP colleagues are offering support, with U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, of Penn Hills, doing so during a recent visit to the area.

"I don't know how that's going to shake out," Santorum said, quoted by the Times Leader. "All I would suggest is that, again, until we know all the facts, [we] look at the job that Congressman Sherwood is doing and make decisions based on the facts."

Some Democrats are lining up to challenge Sherwood, believing that he's weakened. And at least one Republican politician, state Rep. Jerry Birmelin, R-Wayne, said he would consider a run at the seat, but only if Sherwood stepped aside. (Sherwood has no plans to do so, saying he's running for re-election next year.)

Tunkhannock's parable on lust and fallibility wouldn't be complete without a lesson in mercy. Heather Johns, who owns Reese Florist and the next-door bridal boutique, said even if Ore's abuse charges prove to be true, Sherwood ought to be forgiven by his town. "I don't think anybody should be judging him on one incident," she said.

(Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1889.)"