In the midst of his 2002 congressional campaign, Utah House Majority Leader Kevin Garn paid $150,000 to a woman threatening to go public with a past relationship.
In recent days, Cheryl Maher has resurfaced, contacting legislators and reporters about her interaction with Garn, telling a story that a visibly distraught and shaken Garn admitted Thursday is essentially true and potentially damaging to his political career and personal life.
After the House adjourned Thursday night, Garn addressed Maher's allegations directly, saying the incident 25 years ago "was clearly inappropriate and it was my fault."
With his wife Tanya by his side, Garn admitted to the payments and said the news is now coming back to haunt him.
"I expect to suffer public humiliation and embarrassment," he said. "Some lessons are hard to learn. This is something I should've done back in 2002 but I was scared. I did not want to be publicly judged by one of my life's [worst mistakes]."
Maher, in a telephone interview with The Tribune , said "I did not want to lash out and hurt anybody. This has just been a nightmare for me.... I just want to tell the truth because it's part of the healing process for me."
Maher's story is this: In 1985, then 15 years old, Maher worked for then 30-year-old Garn at his business, Pegasus Records and KSG Enterprises.
She said Garn, who was married, struck up a relationship with her and one night took her to a location in Salt Lake City where they hot-tubbed together nude.
Maher's life unraveled over the next years, which she attributes to the incident. She has struggled with pills and alcohol and mental health issues.
She said she did not have contact with Garn until 2002 when she learned that he was running for U.S. Congress and was in the middle of a Republican primary.
At the time she was president of her LDS ward's Young Women's group, but she had a pill problem and, by her admission, "was a mess."
Maher made initial contact with reporters and within a few days Garn and his wife, Tanya, had arranged a meeting with Maher and her Mormon bishop. They met and Garn apologized for the incident and a short time later offered her $20,000.
Maher said her husband insisted it was not enough, and she should demand $150,000. Garn said he believed he was being extorted, but paid her the money and had his attorney draft a non-disclosure agreement, where she said she would not go public with her story.
Garn said he was not paying Maher to keep her quiet, but to make amends with someone who believed she had been damaged.
"I treated this no different than any other event in my life ... no different than any other event where someone feels they had been wronged. I would sit down and work it out with them and that's what I did in this case," he said. "Whether there was an election in place or not, that would have been the case."
The two have had little contact since. They met in 2006 when Garn was in Boston, and in 2007 she asked Garn to pay for a trip to Utah for her high school reunion and they met when she was in town.
In 2008, she contacted Garn's eldest son in an e-mail and said that "nothing will stop me from getting exactly what this matter needs, and that is justice and compensation."
Maher, who is going through a difficult divorce and custody battle in New Hampshire, said she doesn't want money from Garn. Instead she is going public with her story now for her own peace of mind and she believes other women have had similar encounters -- a claim that Garn categorically denies.
Now, Garn said, she has violated that confidentiality agreement and is using his public office as leverage over him, although she has not made any demands of him. Garn called Maher this week, but she hung up on him.
Garn admits he made a mistake 25 years ago but had hoped it was in his past.
"I can unequivocally tell you there was no physical contact, there was no touching, there was no intercourse, there was none of those things. It simply did not occur," he said. "I'm not trying to downplay what did occur but I want to make it very plain."
Garn said his wife has been aware of Maher since shortly after his encounter with her and they have moved on. "There is nothing I've held back from my wife."
Maher sent her e-mail to various legislators and House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, has seen a copy and discussed the issue with Garn. Garn said he also provided Clark with e-mails that Maher had sent to Garn and his wife apologizing for her behavior.
Garn, who spearheaded legislative ethics reform efforts this session, must file for re-election no later than March 19 if he plans to run again. He said he was not sure what the revelations would do for his political future.
After Garn publicly acknowledged the incident and payments to Maher, Clark praised his colleague.
"I know not of the man you speak of, but I know the man I consider a friend, a leader and an asset to the State of Utah and I would ask our fellow colleagues that our hearts might be open," Clark said.
"We hope you would remain with us," Clark said, to a standing ovation from the representatives and applause and shouts from those in the gallery.
Afterward, dozens of lawmakers lined up to embrace Garn, his wife and various family members.