Anticipating Exposure, Legislator Admits Affair

Times Staff Writer

To preempt an embarrassing disclosure, a married state legislator from Anaheim who has announced his candidacy for the state Senate revealed Wednesday that he had carried on a four-year affair with a woman he met through politics.

Democratic Assemblyman Tom Umberg and his wife, Robin, who campaigned for him last fall while he served with the U.S. Army Reserve as a terrorism prosecutor, said they were making public the relationship because the woman had threatened to publicize it. He said the relationship ended in November.

The woman has e-mail messages they exchanged during the affair, he said, and he believes she showed them to the Orange County Register. He declined to reveal the contents of the e-mails and said he did not keep them.

Umberg also declined to identify the woman, who he said was 38 and divorced. He said he didn't want to violate her privacy.

The Times independently learned the name of the woman, who works for a coalition of local governments, but was unable to reach her for comment.

Tom and Robin Umberg, married 23 years, said they planned to stay married and were in counseling. The couple have a grown daughter and son and a teenage son at home. Each has been told of the relationship, they said.

"We want to move on with our lives," Tom Umberg, 49, said in an interview that the couple requested. "I want to apologize to those who have been hurt by what I've done and to put this behind us."

Umberg said he met the woman through Democratic Party activities. They were reacquainted several years ago when he was working in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy during the closing years of the Clinton administration. He said the affair began after he left that job in 2000 and while he was working for a Washington law office.

After he returned to Orange County in late 2000, the woman signed up as a volunteer with his Assembly campaign last year, he said. He said he neither offered her a job nor received any political benefit from the relationship.

Robin Umberg, 50, said she stumbled onto evidence of the relationship late last year -- by which time, he said, he had ended it -- and confronted her husband.

"I was going to go to my grave without my children knowing because Tom has been such a pillar of strength and integrity for all of us," she said during an often tearful interview. "The only reason I'm willing to be public right now is because I want our children to find that beyond the pain and disappointment that they are feeling, they can watch their parents overcome this challenge because we love each other."

The couple said the woman confronted Robin Umberg at the family home after Tom Umberg ended the affair; she also attended a school event of one of the Umbergs' sons and visited the gallery of the Assembly in an attempt to speak to Umberg, the couple said.

The Umbergs are the most visible couple in Orange County Democratic politics. They met in 1981 when they were stationed with the Army in South Korea. He was an Army prosecutor; she was a nurse. They are still active in the Army Reserve, where she is a brigadier general and he is a colonel.

Robin Umberg served a seven-month stint in an Army hospital in Colorado during the first Gulf War, leaving her husband to care for the children. From August to December last year, Tom Umberg served on a team of lawyers prosecuting terrorist suspects, which took him to Washington, D.C.; the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and some undisclosed locations. During that time, his wife campaigned solo for his election, often hauling a life-size cardboard cutout of him to events.

He won with 61% of the vote over Republican Otto Bade. It was the third campaign in which Robin Umberg acted as her husband's alter ego while he was called away to active duty.

Umberg, a former federal prosecutor, was elected to the Assembly in 1990 and reelected in 1992. He ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 1994. He served as the nation's deputy drug czar from 1997 to 2000, then ran statewide for insurance commissioner in 2002, losing in the primary.

He said his plans to run next year for the state Senate seat now held by Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) hadn't changed. Dunn is running for state treasurer, and Umberg will lose his Assembly seat because of term limits.

Umberg said he hoped voters and his campaign supporters would accept his apology for letting them down.

"Whatever happens in the election isn't my primary interest right now," he said. "The hardest thing I've ever done is to discuss this with my wife and children. That's what I'm focusing on right now."

Potential challengers next year may make Umberg's integrity a campaign issue. John J. Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a former advisor to the national Republican Party, said an extramarital affair alone wasn't likely to cause much recoil in contemporary politics.

"It would take more than a simple affair to shock voters," Pitney said. Former President Bill Clinton's reelection after accusations of multiple affairs was proof, Pitney said, that "a consensual affair between adults that doesn't involve the public's business is hurtful but not fatal."

In Umberg's case, he may be harmed most by charges of hypocrisy because of his normally squeaky-clean image. The campaign benefited from Robin Umberg energetically campaigning in his stead.

After returning in mid-December, he jump-started his Assembly term about a month late, with only a few days to meet a deadline for bills to be submitted. A dozen of his bills passed in the Assembly and await Senate action.

The best-known of his bills requires sports teams to specify on tickets and other promotional materials where they play -- a slap at Arte Moreno for renaming his Orange County team the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Robin Umberg said she still believed her husband was a man of integrity, despite his transgression.

"I know there's a lot more to this man than that poor choice," she said. "What really bothers me is that this very personal thing, this personal failure that Tom has had, is unfortunately potentially going to get intertwined with a man who has worked so hard in his political and military life to do the right thing."

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