In MONROE, La. — This is a story about passion and politics. And video. It’s about God, and it’s about sin.
And it’s about ducks.
It begins two days before Christmas last year. Just after 1:30 that afternoon, Vance McAllister, a first-time politician and a congressman for all of 32 days, paused as he left his district office in this northeast Louisiana city. Dressed casual-cool in a crinkly purple shirt, the married father of five leaned over and deeply kissed his office scheduler, a woman who also happened to be married to Heath Peacock, one of his friends and political supporters. Melissa Anne Hixon Peacock tilted her head and kissed him back. It did not look like a first kiss.
Surveillance video of that moment, leaked last week to a small newspaper here, the Ouachita Citizen, and blasted across the country via the Internet and cable television, has transformed McAllister’s life into a melodrama that threatens his once-promising political career. He’s beset by calls for his resignation, and his disappearance from the public eye — the canceled appearances and skipped votes — has only added to the intrigue. In a sense, his kiss has launched a thousand conspiracy theories. This state seethes with questions about who leaked and who loved, who schemed and who will be left standing when it’s all over. A “soap opera” is what Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, a McAllister supporter, calls it. “These types of things become that way.”
To understand what happened here, it helps to take a walk down the hallway outside McAllister’s office in a stucco building that wraps around a leafy courtyard where a bird feeder wobbles in the breeze. A few steps from the soda machine, there’s a locked, unmarked door that the landlord, Bill Land, agreed to open with one caveat: no pictures. Inside the cramped space — no larger than a small closet — a tangle of multicolored wires lace up and down the walls, and dust-covered recording equipment sits beneath a flat-screen monitor. “It gets hot in here. Not comfortable,” Land said.
The equipment might not be there if it hadn’t been for the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat. The attack, Land said, had worried the staff of McAllister’s predecessor in Congress who was renting the same office. They asked Land to install the equipment the next year, and he put in a system with eight cameras. Only two people would be given access besides himself: an employee and the manager of the congressional office.
When the McAllister video leaked, Land became an object of speculation. He had, after all, donated money to two of McAllister’s opponents. Land was not happy. Nobody, he felt, was talking about the fact that he also donated money to McAllister after the election. He and his employee publicly offered to take a polygraph. And, in an interview, he offered a competing theory about the leak. “I think the office manager had something to do with it — without a doubt,” Land said.
After McAllister was elected, Land said he’d taken note that the congressman’s office manager — a holdover from the previous congressman — was making frequent requests to access the surveillance room. The office manager, Leah Gordon, had previously been concerned about staffers stealing office supplies, and Land assumed that was why she needed access. But now she was asking to get into the room every six weeks or so and telling him “how important it was to the congressman to have the security system working,” Land recalled. And she was asking detailed questions about how to retrieve video from the system, he said.
A Monroe-area pastor also has cast suspicion on Gordon, telling the Monroe News-Star that she had planned to leak the video to a state senator and a staffer of McAllister’s predecessor, Rodney Alexander. The staffer had supported McAllister’s opponent in the election and not been rehired. Both denied involvement to the newspaper. On Wednesday, a McAllister spokesman said, Gordon resigned.
Gordon did not respond to messages left on her voicemail and written notes left at her home and office. McAllister’s office would not say whether she is still employed.
If not for the leaked video, McAllister, 40, might be one of the Republican Party’s ascendant stars right now. He’s rich and young. Down to earth, personable and approachable, everyone says. He’s a self-made college dropout who built a string of successful businesses in this corner of Louisiana that some call “Arklamiss” because it sits at the point where Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi meet. The drive from Monroe to his large, gated spread in the rural community of Swartz takes you past whiskey-colored bayous where Cypress “knees,” the knobby wood that extends from Cypress tree roots, poke above the water line.
McAllister, who speaks in a muddy Southern drawl, made his fortune in the pipeline construction business. From there, he got into real estate development, Subway and Fox Pizza franchises, tire and lube shops and battery stores. He also built a promotions business that staged World Wrestling Federation-style events and a football clinic with former New Orleans Saints player Michael Smith. “Fun for the entire family,” the company’s Web site promises.
Melissa Peacock appears to work for McAllister’s promotions company — she’s listed as a contact on the corporate Web site. McAllister’s office would not say whether she remains employed by the company but has said she “voluntarily resigned” from her job in the congressional office.
The McAllisters and Peacocks were close friends. Two friends — speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation — said they thought it was unusual that McAllister seemed to openly flirt with Peacock in public, even sometimes when his wife was present.
McAllister was a surprise entrant in the congressional race, an accelerated special election called to replace Alexander, who had resigned in the middle of his term to take a position in the administration of Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. McAllister squeaked into a runoff with Republican Neil Riser, an uncharismatic funeral home director who opponents were painting as the handpicked choice of the Republican establishment.
McAllister largely self- financed his campaign, pouring more than $600,000 of his own money into the effort, according to federal records. He portrayed himself as a social and fiscal conservative. He also strove to present an image as a pragmatist who opposed the Affordable Care Act but acknowledged that it would be almost impossible to repeal and who did not oppose the expansion of Medicaid. But, more than anything, he presented himself as a deeply religious family man.
In an ad that featured his wife and five children around a kitchen island, McAllister talked about their Sunday morning routine before going to church and urged voters to send him to Washington to “defend our Christian way of life.” In another ad, he said, “I need your prayers.”
His most important backers would be the spectacularly bearded stars of the reality television mega-hit “Duck Dynasty,” whose business is in neighboring West Monroe. Willie Robertson, son of the patriarch, Phil Robertson, cut an ad calling McAllister “my good buddy” and Jep Robertson also appeared in an ad. Later, McAllister made a splash by inviting Willie Robertson to be his guest at the State of the Union.
“When you have the Duck Commanders behind you, you don’t need anybody else,” Land said. “I don’t think Ronald Reagan could have beat him.”
But McAllister, for all his inexperience, also proved adept at marshaling support among his former opponents. Mayo, the Monroe mayor, is African American and a Democrat, but he endorsed McAllister in the runoff and helped deliver large majorities in heavily African American precincts by telling voters that the Republican was committed to addressing poverty in the region, one of the state’s poorest. Another opponent, the former Republican congressman and old lion of Louisiana politics, Clyde Holloway, recorded robo-calls. But Holloway says he edited the text sent to him by McAllister because he was put off by wording that suggested he was impressed by McAllister’s religious faith and “how godly he is.”
McAllister’s emphasis on his Baptist faith has intensified the reaction to his indiscretion. He represents an area that many here call the “buckle of the Bible Belt,” a heavily Protestant zone that is closer — geographically and in temperament — to Jackson, Miss., and Little Rock, Ark., than to New Orleans.
“It’s just another one of those tremendous disappointments,” Paul Hurd, a Monroe-area attorney, said. “You think you’re electing a good man. You don’t expect him to be kissin’ on the help.”
After the video went viral, McAllister spoke in spiritual terms. “There’s no doubt I’ve fallen short and I’m asking for forgiveness,” he said in a statement, “asking for forgiveness from God, my wife, my kids, my staff, and my constituents.”
But the impression McAllister seemed so intent on imprinting was tempered by the pained reaction of the friend he’d betrayed. On CNN, Heath Peacock, who said he was “headed for divorce,” asserted that McAllister “broke out the religious card” during the campaign “and he’s about the most non-religious person I know.”
In a statement, McAllister’s office said he is spending the Easter congressional recess “with his wife and family. That’s his number one priority. . . . The congressman was elected to do a job, and he looks forward to returning to D.C. following the end of recess.”
McAllister has said he will not resign. Soon, he’ll have to decide whether to start campaigning again. He did not respond to a question about whether he would seek re-election. Already, he has opposition — a former district attorney, Ed Tarpley, has announced he’ll run — and many more candidates are expected. “People everywhere are uniformly disappointed,” Tarpley said. “His behavior was conducted with a federal employee in a federal building on federal time. This is not a business-as-usual event.”
Mayo isn’t ready to write McAllister’s political obituary. Voters might forgive McAllister, he said, while not condoning the congressman’s actions. He has. “Would I endorse him again? Yes,” Mayo said.
But McAllister won’t be able to count on Holloway, the former congressman who not so long ago urged voters to get behind the upstart. “I consider him a hypocrite,” Holloway said of McAllister. “I think he’s a dead duck.”
Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.