As most of the world now knows, Democratic New York Rep. Anthony Weiner finally came clean to the public on Monday, admitting that he intentionally sent a lewd image of his underwear to a female supporter in Seattle, and also maintained inappropriate--but not physical--online relationships with several women over the past few years. The political fallout from the scandal could be substantial, possibly ruining his hopes for a New York mayoral run and even jeopardizing his House seat. But what, if any, will the legal consequences be?
So far, Weiner has admitted to lying and doing some stupid things, but stopped short of admitting anything illegal. All of the messages were private, he claims. He also said he didn't recall ever using congressional computers for his risque Internet flirtations. But, despite his denials, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has already asked the House Ethics Committee to look into the matter, and Congressional ethics experts see some gray areas and unanswered questions regarding the New York firebrand congressman's conduct. Others, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have called for Weiner to resign. [Vote now: Should Weiner resign over lewd photos?]
Perhaps most damning are alleged new E-mails from Weiner, published by celebrity gossip website TMZ.com. According to TMZ, Weiner offered to help one of his online paramours, a former adult film actress, by having his "team" assist with a statement of denial after the scandal broke last week. If he was referring to one of his congressional press secretaries, then the offer may violate House ethics rules regarding personal use of government resources, according to Melanie Sloan, the executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "If you sent your press secretary to help this person, that would be a personal use of House appropriations," Sloan says. "It's not the kind of thing that gets you kicked out of Congress, but it gets you a letter of admonition." Even if Weiner did make the offer, it's not clear whether he followed through on it. The rules would also be different if Weiner meant to use campaign staffers, rather than congressional ones. While still possibly a violation, campaign law allows for broader definitions of actions meant to protect a politician's career. "It doesn't set my hair on fire, but it does make me wrinkle my nose," says Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center.
Although Weiner denied that he used an official House computer or cell phone to send the messages, it's not clear that there would be any ethics violation even if he did. House rules recognize that a staffer or congressman may get an occasional personal call at the office. "Incidental personal use of phones and computers is permissible," Sloan says. But depending on how long, or lurid, any messages sent from work were, it may verge on improper use. "There's kind of a line--are you sending text photos, or having long conversations?" McGehee says. If Weiner's computer use rose to the level of wasting office resources, or created an unpleasant work environment for staffers, then it could also be a matter for the Ethics Committee. If not, his Internet peccadilloes seem unlikely to cause any legal scandals. The Internet communications, though unseemly, appear to be between consenting adults. "If it turned out that he was harassing these people or stalking these people, it could be a very big deal," Sloan says. "But we're nowhere near that."
Weiner's scandal joins the saga of former New York Rep. Chris Lee and former Florida Rep. Mark Foley. Although very different, the scandals all mostly took place online, through E-mails or instant messages. "People have this problem with anonymity on the internet," Sloan says. "They don't think E-mails and texts stick around. It gives people a false sense of invincibility."