Amann says he knew of abuse allegations

October 20, 2008 4:54:05 PM PDT
Connecticut House Speaker James Amann was briefed more than four years ago about allegations that a Democratic state lawmaker sexually abused a woman when she was a child, the speaker said Monday. The allegations against George Wilber, D-Colebrook, were taken seriously at the time, but Wilber denied the them and no criminal charges were filed, Amann said.

"This information appears to have been purposely leaked to the media on the eve of an election, which strongly suggests it was done to achieve maximum political impact," said Amann, D-Milford, in a written statement. "As always the voters will make the ultimate decision on Election Day."

Wilber, 63, acknowledges that in 2005 he paid $100,000 to settle a lawsuit by the woman, who is now in her 40s. She alleged that Wilber had sexually abused her from when she was 11 until she turned 18.

The allegations became public Saturday in a story by the Register Citizen of Torrington.

On Monday, Wilber said he would like to explain things to voters, but is legally obligated not to discuss the case.

"There was a settlement and that was the settlement," he said. "I am, on my side at least, abiding by it."

Republicans, including House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, called on Wilber and the Democratic leadership to explain the lawsuit and the decision to settle it. Cafero said he was shocked to learn that Democratic leaders had been aware of the allegations for years.

"I think that the air needs to be cleared on who did what; who knew what; and when did they know it as soon as possible before an election," said Cafero, R-Norwalk. "You have a person standing for public office that the public is going to vote for or against and the public is entitled to know something, at least all the background and the facts regarding this incident that has just been brought to our attention."

State Republican Party leader Chris Healy denied the GOP had anything to do with leaking the details of the case two weeks before the election. He said he learned of the allegations like everybody else, by reading about them in the newspaper.

"I don't know how you can run for office after acknowledging in public something like this," Healy said. "I am very concerned that something like this was known by people who could have had an impact on it and didn't give a member of their own chamber the advice that maybe it wasn't a good idea to seek election again."

John Rigby, the Republican running against Wilber in the district that includes the towns of Barkhamsted, Canaan, Colebrook, Hartland, Norfolk, North Canaan and Winchester, said the political firestorm over the issue caught him by surprise. He said he does not plan to bring it up when the two debate on a local cable station Tuesday evening.

"Right now my district needs jobs and our tax burden is overwhelming on a lot of people," he said. "People are struggling in a lot of different ways, and I'm going to let them make their own decision on this matter."

It is possible for Wilber to survive the scandal and be re-elected, said Howard Reiter, a professer of American politics at the University of Connecticut. Sometimes, when allegations come out just before an election, there is a "rally around the incumbant" effect by those who think the other side is playing dirty politics, he said.

"Clearly, though, it's not a situation anybody would want to be in, particularly because this is about allegations of sexual abuse of minors, which makes it potentially much more damaging," he said.

Wilber, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2003, is a dairy farmer, a former first selectman of Colebrook and former state agriculture commissioner. He said the past few days have been hard on him, his wife and three children. But, he said he has received many phone calls of support and understanding, and has no plans to drop out of the race.

"This is a democracy and if they want me to resign, then their candidate gets automatically in," he said. "We'll see what the voters of the district have to say, and they have a choice. There won't be any choice if I resign."

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