Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly identified the watchdog group that Tom Gosinski signed an agreement with as the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Its correct name is Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. This version has been corrected.

A Tangled Story of Addiction

By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008

When Cindy McCain is asked what issues she would champion as first lady, she often cites one of the most difficult periods of her life: her battle with -- and ultimate victory over -- prescription painkillers. Her struggle, she has said repeatedly, taught her valuable lessons about drug abuse that she would pass on to the nation.

"I think it made me a better person as well as a better parent, so I think it would be very important to talk about it and be very upfront about it," McCain said in an interview with "Access Hollywood." In an appearance on the "Tonight Show With Jay Leno," she said she tries "to talk about it as much as possible because I don't want anyone to wind up in the shoes that I did at the time."

In describing her struggle with drugs, McCain has said that she became addicted to Vicodin and Percocet in early 1989 after rupturing two disks and having back surgery. She has said she hid her addiction from her husband, Sen. John McCain, and stopped taking the painkillers in 1992 after her parents confronted her. She has not discussed what kind of treatment she received for her addiction, but she has made clear that she believes she has put her problems behind her.

While McCain's accounts have captured the pain of her addiction, her journey through this personal crisis is a more complicated story than she has described, and it had more consequences for her and those around her than she has acknowledged.

Her misuse of painkillers prompted an investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration and local prosecutors that put her in legal jeopardy. A doctor with McCain's medical charity who supplied her with prescriptions for the drugs lost his license and never practiced again. The charity, the American Voluntary Medical Team, eventually had to be closed in the wake of the controversy. Her husband was forced to admit publicly that he was absent much of the time she was having problems and was not aware of them.

"So many lives were damaged by this," said Jeanette Johnson, whose husband, John Max Johnson, surrendered his medical license. "A lot of good people. Doctors who volunteered their time. My husband. I cannot begin to tell you how painful it was. We moved far away to start over."

McCain's addiction also embroiled her with one of her charity's former employees, Tom Gosinski, who reported her drug use to the DEA and provided prosecutors with a contemporaneous journal that detailed the effects of her drug problems. He was later accused by a lawyer for McCain of trying to extort money from the McCain family.

"It's not just about her addiction, it's what she did to cover up her addiction and the lives of other people that she ruined, or put at jeopardy at least," Gosinski said in an interview this week.

Cindy and John McCain declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article. The McCain campaign also declined to comment.

Based on the limited details they have provided in earlier interviews, it is impossible to tell the full story of a difficult period in their lives. The following account of Cindy McCain's prescription drug abuse and her and her husband's efforts to deal with it is based on official records, including a report by the county attorney's office in Phoenix, and on interviews with local and federal officials involved in the probe.

Politics and Philanthropy

In 1988, during her husband's first Senate term, Cindy McCain founded the American Voluntary Medical Team, a nonprofit that sent volunteer doctors and nurses to provide free medical care in Third World countries and U.S. disaster zones. Cindy McCain served as president, operating out of her family's business, a giant Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship in Phoenix owned by her father.

The McCains had married in 1980. They moved to Washington after he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1982. But she later returned to Phoenix, her home town, believing it was a better place to raise a family. Sen. McCain commuted home on weekends.

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