WRAL Investigates

Cunningham publicly apologizes for affair

Posted October 6, 2020 5:32 p.m. EDT
Updated October 8, 2020 12:09 a.m. EDT

— A California woman on Tuesday confirmed to The Associated Press that she had a physical relationship with Cal Cunningham, North Carolina’s Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. Both are married to other people.

Cunningham last week admitted to texting Arlene Guzman Todd, a public relations strategist. His campaign initially didn't comment on the AP or WRAL stories about the affair, pointing instead to a statement released Friday after news outlets reported on the initial batch of texts.

"I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends and am deeply sorry," Cunningham said in a statement at that time. "The first step in repairing those relationships is taking complete responsibility, which I do. I ask that my family’s privacy be respected in this personal matter.”

During a Wednesday night event sponsored by the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, Cunningham publicly apologized before pivoting to his campaign talking points attacking Republican Sen. Thom Tillis.

"I am deeply sorry for the hurt I have caused in my personal life, and I also apologize to all of you," he said. "I hope each of you watching at home accept this sincere apology and that we will continue to work together to change the direction of our country and strengthen our state. Right now, we are facing some very serious challenges as a nation and as a state, as communities and as families, and we all need to work together.

"This campaign, our campaign, is about something much bigger than just me," he continued. "It’s about replacing a senator who doesn’t stand up and fight for working families, who caves in to [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and the corporate interests in Washington time and time again. And because Thom Tillis knows that he is losing and we are winning, he has now resorted to trying to make this campaign about something other than the issues."

Tillis' campaign shot back that the apology was "insincere."

"Cunningham is afraid to directly address why and how he betrayed the trust of North Carolinians. He offered no explanation for his extramarital affairs, instead choosing to read off an insincere apology written by his campaign consultants from D.C., in line with the fake and insincere persona he is trying to sell to North Carolina," Tillis campaign manager Luke Blanchat said in a statement.

Texts obtained by WRAL and verified by The Associated Press offer new insight into a long-distance relationship.

“I just want to [expletive] him one last time and break his heart,” one text from Guzman Todd reads.

The messages were not obtained from Guzman Todd. But the AP contacted her to confirm their authenticity.

Another says: “Trying to make plans to see the politician so I can give him the [expletive] of his life and then walk away.”

Guzman Todd didn’t respond to calls from WRAL reporters. But in a series of interviews with the AP late Monday, as well as in the text messages, she described two in-person encounters with Cunningham: one in March in Los Angeles that she said did not include intimate contact and a second in July in North Carolina, where she said they were intimate.

Political experts say the North Carolina race could decide the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. Many polls show Cunningham with a small lead over Tillis.

On Wednesday morning, a statement from Cunningham spokeswoman Rachel Petri indicated that the Democrat intends to move forward with his campaign.

"Cal will participate in this process, but it does not change the stakes of this election or the need for new leaders who will fight for the issues North Carolinians care about instead of caving to the corporate special interests – which is exactly what Senator Tillis has done in his years in Washington," Petri said in a statement to WRAL.

The Army Reserve said Wednesday that it has opened an investigation into Cunningham, who is a lieutenant colonel in the Reserve.

"The Army Reserve is investigating the matters involving Lt. Col. James Cunningham. As such, we are unable to provide further details at this time," said Simon Flake, chief of media relations and public information for the Army Reserve Strategic Communications.

Without more details from the Reserve, it's unclear exactly what prompted the investigation. NationalFile.com reported last week that Arlene Guzman Todd is married to a service member. Adultery is listed as "unacceptable conduct" by the military and may be "service discrediting."

Mark Sullivan, a Raleigh attorney and retired colonel in the Judge Advocate General Corps, said investigators need to determine whether Cunningham was on duty when any misconduct occurred.

"Was there duty status of the individual in connection with the misconduct?" Sullivan asked. "The word 'duty status' means, for a reservist or a guardsman, did it occur during the time that the individual was serving on active duty or a drill weekend or annual training."

Tillis has called for Cunningham to reveal the scope of his extramarital behavior.

“I’m sad for his wife and his teenage children,” Tillis told WRAL News on Tuesday. “Cal Cunningham owes everybody an explanation for two revelations over the past week. I think North Carolinians deserve it. He needs to stop canceling media events and campaign events and go before the people of North Carolina and give us all a thorough explanation."

Text messages obtained by WRAL reveal passion, jealousy and frustration.

In the messages, Guzman Todd told her friend that she was intimate with Cunningham in his home, which she later characterized as “weird.”

Sullivan, the former JAG Corps lawyer, said that, even if Cunningham was off duty when the liaisons occurred, he still could be in trouble with the Army Reserve.

"If you're in the [National] Guard or Reserve and you cannot be prosecuted because it did not occur during duty status, you're not off the hook," Sullivan said. "It's important to understand that there are administrative consequences that can also be brought to bear."

Potential administrative penalties range from a written reprimand to loss of rank to forced retirement, he said.

"The general officer letter of reprimand is the kiss of death for a career. You might as well put in for retirement right away. It's unlikely you're ever going to be promoted," he said.

But military investigators cannot compel witnesses to talk, Sullivan noted.

"One has a right not to make statements that may harm himself or herself in the process of investigation or prosecution," he said.

Texts from Guzman Todd to a friend include disparaging comments about Cunningham’s wife, as well as her own husband. Some texts suggest Guzman Todd complained about her husband to Cunningham.

A text from Guzman Todd says: “And this is what the politician sent me: You’re going to be the best therapist ever at this rate. Sorry you’re having to deal with it. Be strong!! I know you are!!”

It’s unclear whether new details of Cunningham’s relationship will alter the course of the race.

A survey by Public Policy Polling over the weekend found that 58% of North Carolinians who heard news about the texts said it won’t change their vote. In a press briefing on Tuesday before this story was published, Gov. Roy Cooper affirmed his support for Cunningham.

Cunningham, 47, was a star recruit for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. He’s been a fundraising powerhouse, and he checks important boxes: He’s a veteran, a father, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, a lawyer and a former state senator.

He also has an "aw-shucks" style that matched effectively against Tillis and could be compelling to critical independent voters.

“He had this clean-cut image with a great story, a great background, an impeccable record of service,” said Brad Crone, a longtime state Democratic consultant. “He was straight out of central casting.”

According to texts, Cunningham was not great at keeping in touch with Guzman Todd.

“Should I just tell Cal that I’m done? Or literally let it die?” one of her text reads. “I’m sure he’ll get around to texting at some point.”

She texted that she previously “would hear from him almost every day.”

In the texts, Guzman Todd jokes about what she could do to Cunningham as revenge for not contacting her.

“I’m just going to send his opponent his naked photos,” she texted. “That will teach him.”

Guzman Todd told her friend: “Have heard zero from him. Block? Kill? Marry? Like is he stupid or what?” she said, adding that she could “tank his campaign” if she wanted to.

In a statement to the AP, Guzman Todd apologized for the “pain and embarrassment, and disrespect I’ve caused to my immediate family, loved ones and everyone affected by this situation.”

“A few months back, I displayed a lapse in judgment by engaging in a relationship with Cal Cunningham during a period of marital separation,” she said. “The relationship spanned several months and consisted primarily of a series of text exchanges and an in-person encounter."

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