Limbaugh's troubles persist

Talk show host implicated in drug-ring inquiry, but not target

October 03, 2003|By Harry Berkowitz and Steve Zipay | Harry Berkowitz and Steve Zipay,NEWSDAY

Conservative talk show superstar Rush Limbaugh, a longtime lightning rod for controversy, found the voltage turned way up yesterday as he responded to separate furors involving his alleged abuse of addictive painkillers and his remarks about a black quarterback on an ESPN show.

A law enforcement source confirmed that Limbaugh has been implicated in a drug-ring investigation but said the radio and TV personality is not a principal target of the Florida probe, which is focusing on drug dealers and which has led to several arrests. "The addicts are not our principal targets," the source said.

The source also confirmed a National Enquirer report that Limbaugh's former housekeeper Wilma Cline told prosecutors that over a period of more than four years she illegally supplied him with thousands of painkillers including at times more than 30 pills per day of the highly potent drug OxyContin. Limbaugh had twice gone through detoxification treatment in New York, according to that report.

But Limbaugh yesterday denied knowledge of the probe. "I am unaware of any investigation by any authorities involving me," Limbaugh said in a statement. "No governmental representative has contacted me directly or indirectly. If my assistance is required in the future, I will, of course, cooperate fully."

Whether Limbaugh, 52, faces any prosecution could depend partly on the degree of that cooperation and the nature of the information he provides, the law enforcement source said.

Mike Edmondson, a spokesman for the Palm Beach County state's attorney's office, which is taking part in the investigation, said he could "neither confirm nor deny" that there is a probe under way.

Edward Shohat, an attorney for Cline and her handyman husband, David, both of whom were granted immunity, said they stand by the remarks attributed to them in the Enquirer but declined to elaborate.

Limbaugh, who was replaced by a guest host on his nationally syndicated radio show yesterday as he attended a broadcasters convention in Philadelphia, also elaborated on why he resigned late Wednesday as an analyst on the ESPN television program Sunday NFL Countdown.

The resignation came three days after he commented that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was overrated because "the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well." The remarks created an uproar, drawing criticism from three Democratic presidential candidates, including former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who assailed the comment as "absurd and offensive."

"The great people at ESPN did not want to deal with this kind of reaction," Limbaugh told the National Association of Broadcasters yesterday. "The path of least resistance became for me to resign." He had been on the show only since Sept. 7.

Mark Shapiro, executive vice president of programming at ESPN, defended Limbaugh before he quit, saying in a USA Today interview, "This is not a politically motivated comment it's a sports and media issue," and adding that the cable network hired Limbaugh in mid-July to replace Bill Parcells for "no-holds-barred opinion."

But ESPN, which is owned by Walt Disney Co., shifted to calling Limbaugh's comment "insensitive and inappropriate."

Michael Kay, who is the host of a show on ESPN radio station 1050 AM in New York, yesterday called the ESPN turnabout "the height of hypocrisy," adding that the "corporation looks like a coward" for hiring someone to be controversial and then taking umbrage when he expressed his opinions.

An ESPN spokesman said yesterday that the use of the provocative Limbaugh on the show "worked when it was just about football," but "obviously, this went beyond the boundaries of football."

Limbaugh will not be replaced on the show. So far this season, Sunday NFL Countdown ratings have been up 10 percent.

Newsday's Peter Goodman contributed to this article. Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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