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Cunningham acknowledges 'drinking problem'

East Side councilman under fire for alleged sexual comments

Tucson City Councilman Paul Cunningham, embroiled in a controversy over sexual comments allegedly made while on an official trip, said Thursday that he has sought help for a drinking problem.

"I had too much to drink and said some things that might be considered inappropriate," Cunningham said in a statement to TucsonSentinel.com.

"I apologize for my behavior," he said.

"I've got to acknowledge that I have a drinking problem, and that I'm working on that," he said in an exclusive interview.

Sexual comments allegedly made by Cunningham while on a junket in San Diego two weeks ago have sparked one colleague to suggest he consider resigning.

Cunningham used suggestive language and made sexual comments to at least one female city staffer after a delegation of Tucson political and business leaders had spent several hours drinking at a bar at an upscale Torrey Pines resort, sources said.

Councilwoman Karin Uhlich said Tuesday that she called her fellow Democrat and told him that he should think about stepping down.

Cunningham said Thursday that "it's premature" to discuss resignation.

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"If I truly believe in my heart that what I've done was so awful that I've disgraced the office, if it gets to that point, I'll consider that," he said.

"Whatever consequences fall from my actions I have to accept and make amends for," he said.

Councilman Steve Kozachik said that although Cunningham's behavior was "wholly unprofessional," that he's not calling on him to resign.

"He needs to do a self-assessment ... he needs to deal with it seriously and decide if he's able to do his job effectively," Kozachik said. "I'm not going to ask him to resign."

Thursday, Uhlich said she's "pleased he's seeking support and treatment," and that Cunningham should do "what he thinks is right and fair."

Sources close to Cunningham said the councilman's marriage has been in jeopardy since before the San Diego fact-finding trip, and that "he's not taking it well."

Cunningham has a young son with his wife Erica, who sources said has asked for a divorce, and another from a previous relationship over whom he has joint custody.

San Diego junket

A group of about 40 city and county staffers and business leaders were on the three-day trip two weeks ago, which was sponsored by Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, an economic development group that is funded by the city and county. The trip was focused on looking at successful projects in the San Diego area.

On May 16, the first day of the junket, Cunningham and a group of others on the trip spent the evening drinking in a bar.

Cunningham had about 14 drinks over the course of 5-6 hours, he said Thursday.

The councilman allegedly made several suggestive comments to a high-ranking female city worker, in the presence of other women employed by the city.

Cunningham declined Thursday to detail his remarks or identify the women, but sources said Cunningham commented on the weight and sex appeal of one staffer, and invited her up to his room — a remark that some present took as a joke, while others were offended.

The councilman also unsuccessfully asked staffers and others, both male and female, to accompany him to a strip club, sources said.

Those present who spoke to TucsonSentinel.com about the details of the incident declined to be identified. We are not identifying the women allegedly involved, as they would not return calls and no official complaint has been provided.

'Drinking issues'

"I've had drinking issues in the past where I've forced myself to quit temporarily," Cunningham said Thursday. "But I've never sought actual help for it."

Cunningham said he sought help for his drinking problem before the details of the San Diego trip were first reported by the press Monday night.

He declined to detail what treatment he is receiving, but said he hasn't had a drink for "10 days, almost two weeks."

"I'm just trying to get the help I need and have my support system be there," he said.

Cunningham wouldn't say that he is an alcoholic.

"I don't think anybody wakes up and decides that they have a drinking problem," he said.

"That's a process you have to go through," he said.


Cunningham said that City Attorney Mike Rankin is conducting an inquiry into the incident, although no complaint has been filed regarding it.

"I think it's really important to let this inquiry go through," he said.

Rankin has not returned phone calls from TucsonSentinel.com regarding the incident.

Cunningham has not called to offer an apology to the city staffers he offended in San Diego, he said.

"That wouldn't be appropriate," he said.

"If I could call them to apologize, if it wouldn't be seen as coercion or retaliation, I would," he said.

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"I feel awful that they have to be involved in this," Cunningham said. "I absolutely have huge apologies to make."

Political fallout

Both Uhlich and Councilwoman Regina Romero, also a Democrat, have floated the idea of Cunningham resigning, and Uhlich said she wants Rankin to investigate the matter and report to the Council.

"I'm pleased that Paul agrees that the inquiry should be allowed to progress," Uhlich said Thursday.

A discussion of a code of conduct for council members and a look at the benefits of fact-finding trips like the San Diego junket were to be on the agenda for next Tuesday's Council meeting, but were delayed by Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.

Uhlich said there's a "vacuum in the guidelines" when it comes to addressing allegations of improper behavior by Mayor and Council.

"If you file a complaint, it dead-ends," she said. "We need to fix something that's broken."

"We have an obligation to ensure that city employees have appropriate protection," Uhlich said.

"I don't think I would tolerate that type of behavior from anyone. I wouldn't tolerate it from an employee, I wouldn't tolerate it from a colleague," Romero said last Friday.

"What I've heard, I don't think that's good behavior," Romero said.

While she stopped short of calling for Cunningham to step down, Romero said Friday that she has concerns that Cunningham "is not going to be effective in his job."

Kozachik, a Republican, said Thursday people need to remember that "there's a human being behind the story."

"If he's willing to man up ... and recognize and concede it, I don't know that this rises to the level of resigning."

City staffers "have the right to expect more professional behavior out of somebody than what they got," Kozachik said of the incident. "People have an absolute right to be treated with dignity."

"I'm not saying that he should not be held accountable for his actions," Kozachik said. But Cunningham "took a huge step" in acknowledging a drinking problem, Kozachik said.

Uhlich said Tuesday that the Cunningham needs "to determine if he can be effective."

Although Uhlich and Cunningham are both Democrats, they have not always agreed on policies.

There is no process to remove a council member for the sort of misconduct alleged against Cunningham, Uhlich said. As elected officials, council members aren't governed by the same Human Resources rules as other city employees.

If the 38-year-old Cunningham were to resign, his Ward 2 seat would be filled by an appointee chosen by the Council.

Before being elected in his own right last year, Cunningham was himself appointed in 2010 to fill the seat vacated when Rodney Glassman resigned to run for the U.S. Senate.

Although the vote to appoint him was unanimous, Uhlich had quietly pushed for the appointment of another of the 11 applicants for the post: home health care company owner Judy Clinco.


Among those on the trip were Assistant City Manager Kelly Gottschalk; the mayor's business advocate, Maricela Solis; city economic development manager Debra Chandler; Councilwoman Shirley Scott; the CEO of trip sponsor TREO, Joe Snell; attorney Keri Silvyn and Providence Service Corp. CEO Fletcher McCusker. Also on the trip were Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson and County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

Cunningham said that despite the furor over his behavior, "the trip was actually productive."

Those on the trip were given a tour of San Diego's downtown, and learned about development incentives and business incubators that city has offered, he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that Cunningham has two sons with his wife. He has one son with her and another, whom he has joint custody over, from a previous relationship.

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1 comment on this story

May 31, 2012, 10:54 am
-0 +3

A drinking problem? Sounds to me like Cunningham drinks just fine. Ha! Seriously, I’d be more willing to bet that Scott, Uhlich, and especially Romero all have drinking problems to the point where they show to City Council meetings drunk. Alcohol intoxication is one of the few things that would explain most of their idiotic decisions and actions over the years. The only one more lit up than those three are anyone stupid enough to vote for them. Arizona used to have a law banning alcohol sales on election day, and judging by many of the local election results I think that law needs to be reinstated, post-haste.

Cunningham has not called to offer an apology to the city staffers he offended in San Diego, he said.

“That wouldn’t be appropriate,” he said.

“If I could call them to apologize if it wouldn’t be seen as coercion or retaliation, I would,” he said.

Huh? Was Cunningham still drunk when this sound byte was uttered?

I’ll repeat what I said yesterday…this is a non-story until a formal complaint is lodged. Until such a thing happens, then all this is is gossip based on things that happened during an off-hours social setting, and discussing this at a council meeting is really inappropriate.

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

Cunningham in 2010.

Cunningham's statement

I acknowledge that I had too much to drink and said some things that might be considered inappropriate.

I apologize for my behavior. I have some personal issues that I'm dealing with.

I will make amends to anyone I offended and to my constituents as best I can.

Cunningham radio interview

Paul Cunningham was interviewed on the radio by John C. Scott on Thursday afternoon.