Glenn Richardson: Private, public stress form a ‘perfect storm’

House speaker holds back details of recent suicide attempt

“It’s a lot of tragedy,” Richardson said, “for one community in one day.”

For Richardson, though, it wasn’t just one day. When his friends and three others died on Feb. 1, 2008, it marked the beginning of a dizzying spiral of personal setbacks that culminated late on Sunday, Nov. 8, of this year when Richardson tried to take his own life.

Sheriff’s deputies found the second-most powerful man in Georgia politics sitting on the lip of his bathtub, semi-conscious from sleeping pills. A silver .357 Magnum revolver sat on a counter in front of him.

Richardson, 49, issued a statement five days later saying he suffers from depression, is receiving treatment and hopes his acknowledgement would inspire others to seek help. Already, he is back on the political circuit, appearing last week at two fund-raising events for fellow Republicans. His aides say he has no intention of giving up his position — or of breaking his self-imposed silence with reporters to talk about his suicide attempt.

But interviews with his friends and antagonists and a review of records in Paulding County provide a glimpse into a public official’s private despair.

The deaths of Richardson’s friends coincided with the breakup of his 17-year marriage. A shift in Paulding’s political leadership slashed his earnings as a lawyer just after he went into an unprecedented level of debt. The collapse of the real estate market sapped business from his law firm and threatened the viability of a bank in which he invested, an institution where losses have totaled $7.6 million in three years.

No one claims to know what drove Richardson to the brink of suicide, no more than they can explain his mercurial temperament or his emotional outbursts in the General Assembly.

Nor is it clear what happens next. Richardson, the first Republican to lead the state House of Representatives since Reconstruction, once laid bare an ambition to become governor. More recently, though, beginning with this year’s legislative session, he retreated into a zone of privacy.

Now he has to decide whether to continue in public life, and on what terms, said Matt Towery, an Atlanta political analyst and former Republican lawmaker.

“I have seen really strong leaders have problems strike them and overcome it, and it became a hallmark for them becoming more important and powerful down the road,” Towery said. “I have seen other instances where it causes them to have to reassess their ability to govern and continue in politics.

“I don’t know which direction it will go.”

An unlikely ascent

In 1996, Richardson seemed an unlikely contender for becoming a power broker in statewide politics.

He was a young lawyer, practicing in Dallas, the seat of Paulding County. Since 1989, he also had been the county attorney, an appointed part-time position. When he declared his candidacy for a legislative seat, no Republican had represented the county in more than a century.

His anti-government, anti-tax platform propelled him to victory. In the Capitol, though, he took his place in a modest minority — literally a back-bencher, assigned a seat about as far as possible from the podium where the legendary Speaker Tom Murphy presided with an iron will and a disdain for Republicans.

Richardson distinguished himself in his first years mostly by the ferocity of his opposition. In 1999, he cast the only vote in the House against a bill to strengthen the state’s open meetings law, after unsuccessfully offering numerous amendments to weaken the legislation.

Before the 2002 gubernatorial election, Richardson aligned himself with Sonny Perdue, a former Democrat who had switched parties while serving in the state Senate. Perdue, fresh from his unexpected victory, named Richardson his House floor leader before the 2003 legislative session. By the end of the year, he had become the House minority leader.

Richardson spent much of 2004 away from home, and away from his law practice. He drove the state, doing everything he could to elect Republican House candidates. He organized and ran candidate training sessions, raised campaign contributions, took part in regular conference calls with the governor to discuss individual campaigns. His work paid off: That November, Republicans took control of the House — and picked Richardson to be the new speaker.

In a speech to the GOP caucus, he promised to “place principle over power” and to “be fair in all my decisions.” But he alluded to the Republicans’ lingering resentment over being shut out of decision-making by Democrats for so long.

“It has been a long and difficult course, as we have struggled, many times in vain, in the minority for these last 134 years,” Richardson said. “It has been difficult to understand how a government controlled by the people could be so far out of touch with the very people we represent.”

Democrats soon learned that Richardson was quick to “fly off the handle,” as Bob Holmes, a former legislator from Atlanta, put it last week.

“He was always very cordial in terms of some of the ceremonial stuff,” Holmes said. “But you could always tell he was just kind of a step away from being very upset about things.”

Shortly before assuming his new job, Richardson fell and broke his foot while changing Christmas lights at home. His pain was excruciating, friends said, as he stood to take the oath of office Jan. 10, 2005, with his wife, Susan, beside him.

‘Poison’

When he became speaker, Richardson resigned as Paulding’s county attorney. But another lawyer from his firm — now known as Talley, Richardson & Cable — took over, and the county commission created a new position for Richardson: “litigations and special projects county attorney,” with a $72,000-a-year retainer.

Paulding County, at the fringe of Atlanta’s northwest suburbs, was booming. With plenty of open space and low home prices, the county’s population nearly tripled from 1990 to 2008, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. The county commission’s Web site still boasts that Paulding is the “nation’s eleventh fastest-growing county.”

Early in 2006, Richardson joined a group of Paulding residents who hoped to capitalize on the county’s seemingly limitless prosperity. They applied for a state charter to establish a bank that would primarily lend to the developers whose subdivisions were sprouting out of former farm land. Six months later, WestSide Bank opened in Hiram, with $12.9 million in capital and a board of directors that included Richardson and his friends Hal Echols, a county commissioner, and Steve Simpson, a real estate developer.

In the Capitol, Richardson’s political stock had begun to peak.

He clashed with other Republicans, displaying a temper that would turn his face bright red. In 2007, he shocked members of both parties when he publicly lashed out at Perdue over the veto of a budget bill that contained a $100 property tax rebate for homeowners.

The governor, Richardson said, had bared “his backside” by killing the rebate. “We inked an agreement, between the House and Senate, to send the money back,” Richardson told reporters, “and the governor said, ‘Waaah, I don’t want to send that money back.’ ”

Richardson later apologized to Perdue. “I don’t mean to be angry,” he said. “And I don’t like to be.”

Earlier in the session, Richardson had fended off allegations about his ethics. Democrats filed a complaint claiming he had engaged in an “inappropriate” and “personal” relationship with a female lobbyist for Atlanta Gas Light while pushing a bill authorizing the utility to build a controversial natural gas pipeline.

Richardson denied any conflict, but refused to address the alleged relationship with the lobbyist. Republicans supported Richardson in public; in private, some suggested his aspirations for higher office had been compromised. Richardson has not since talked publicly about running for higher office.

The ethics complaint prompted an ominous speech by Richardson during a breakfast gathering of the state’s business leaders.

“The last few weeks, I have been fed a little poison, and I’ve taken it,” Richardson said. “But the bad news — for those that manufactured, dispensed and stirred unreasonably the poison — is that I survived. I’m looking for the folks that manufactured that poison.”

Deaths and divorce

In January 2008, Richardson celebrated his 48th birthday with a round of golf with three of his best friends: Echols, the county commissioner; Simpson, a partner in WestSide Bank; and John Wesley Rakestraw, owner of a Paulding County construction company.

Less than a month later, all three were dead.

The morning of Feb. 1, their twin-engine turboprop crashed while attempting to land in Mount Airy, N.C. All six passengers died.

Richardson, by all accounts, was devastated. He choked back tears the next day when he spoke to a reporter about Echols: “He was just a good friend,” Richardson said, “and in the business I’m in, you don’t have many of those.”

The next few days became a blur of funerals and eulogies.

The last service, for Simpson, took place Feb. 6 — the same day that Richardson and his wife went to the Paulding County Courthouse to file for divorce.

Susan Richardson cited only “irreconcilable differences” in her divorce petition; nothing that amplified the rumors dogging her husband surfaced.

Court papers show that Glenn Richardson was earning about $202,000 a year at the time (almost half of which was his state salary), in contrast to his wife’s $12,000. Under a settlement that remains sealed, Richardson agreed to pay his former wife an undisclosed amount of alimony, as well as $3,000 a month in child support. She got primary custody of their children. He got their house in Hiram.

Over the next few months, public records show, Richardson took out two new mortgages on the house, totaling $553,000. Never before, records suggest, had he owed so much.

At the same time, the housing market’s collapse hit Paulding County — and, by extension, Richardson — especially hard.

Richardson’s law firm had handled a large share of the real estate closings in a county where real estate had become the biggest business, according to other attorneys. Now, that business has largely evaporated.

Then the county cut off the $72,000 it paid each year to keep Richardson on retainer.

Finally, losses accumulated at WestSide Bank, which has appeared on lists of troubled financial institutions. Bank officers are trying to keep WestSide from joining the long list of Georgia banks that have failed because of bad loans.

“They’re all hurting,” Thad Morrison, a Paulding resident who is engaged in a long-running lawsuit against the county over a real estate project, said of Paulding’s bankers and developers. “They’ve all lost property. They’ve got stuff in foreclosure.”

Richardson, in particular, seemed depressed and somewhat ungrounded, and still was prone to tears when the subject of his friends’ deaths came up, said Jerry Shearin, another friend and a former chairman of the Paulding County Commission.

“A lot of Class A people suffer [from depression],” Shearin said. “I think it hits meteoric people at higher levels. Your highs are higher and your lows are lower.”

‘Perfect storm’

The first week of November, Richardson attended two political fund-raising events. Then, on Saturday, Nov. 7, he watched from the stands as Georgia Tech’s football team defeated Wake Forest in overtime.

The following night he was at home: a seven-bedroom house on a 12-acre estate off a dead-end road in northeastern Paulding County. A black chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire guards the property. Three security cameras are visible near the mechanical gate that blocks the driveway.

After 10 that night, Richardson called his mother, who lives in Douglas County, to tell her he had taken sleeping pills and that it was too late to help him. His mother called 911. “It’s my son,” she told the operator. “Glenn Richardson, the speaker of the House of Representatives.”

When two Paulding County sheriff’s deputies arrived, they found the front door unlocked. They made their way to the master bedroom and came across Richardson in the bathroom, sitting on the tub with a handgun on the counter. A suicide note written on yellow paper, and a second note “related to the suicide,” authorities said, also lay on the counter.

In a police report, a deputy described Richardson as semi-conscious, unable to respond to verbal commands. Paramedics soon took him to the hospital.

Except for the statement he issued Nov. 13, in which he said he hoped to “raise awareness and let others know they are not alone,” Richardson has remained silent about the episode.

Many of his friends have kept quiet, as well. But Shearin, the former commission chairman and a director at WestSide Bank, said Richardson would emerge stronger than ever, engaged as always in Georgia politics.

“He lives for it,” Shearin said, “and I think he’ll continue to live. He’ll sort it out in his mind and will make sure the things that came together — that perfect storm — he’ll make sure that will never happen again.”

Staff writer Bill Torpy contributed to this article.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.