By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A little more than a week after the election, the voters of Tennessee’s 4th District got proof that their congressman, an anti-abortion physician, had misled them repeatedly about having affairs with patients, encouraging a lover to get an abortion and using a gun to intimidate his ex-wife during an argument.
When a transcript of sworn testimony from Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais’ 2001 divorce trial was made public Thursday, his own words substantiated claims made by Democratic opponents during his 2010 and 2012 campaigns. It also revealed for the first time that the congressman had agreed when his ex-wife had two abortions.
Democrats were unable to get the transcript released before the Nov. 6 election, while DesJarlais repeatedly denied the allegations. He was re-elected with the backing of 56 percent of the voters in the conservative district.
Chances are he won’t now face serious repercussions or be forced out of Congress — at least until the Republican primary two years from now.
Voters can’t recall a member of Congress. And DesJarlais is dismissing any suggestions he should resign.
“He will remain focused on finding solutions to the major challenges facing our nation — not a 14-year-old divorce,” spokesman Robert Jameson wrote in an email. He did not respond to follow-up questions about the divorce transcripts.
Just as they did during the campaign marked by revelations DesJarlais once urged a patient he was having an affair with to seek an abortion, prominent Republicans in the state are refusing to say whether he is fit for office.
“This is a matter between Rep. DesJarlais and his constituents,” Lamar Alexander, the state’s senior senator and a former two-term governor, said in a statement. The state Republican Party referred all questions to DesJarlais.
Only the Tennessee Conservative Union has publicly demanded DesJarlais resign, likening it to a clemency-for-cash scandal that caused Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton to be ousted from office in 1979.
“You know, if Republicans and conservatives do not speak out on this kind of hypocrisy and misdeeds, they’re going to have to dig up Ray Blanton and apologize to him,” TCU chairman Lloyd Daugherty said.
Daugherty said it was unfortunate that taxpayers would have to bear the cost of a special primary and general election if DesJarlais were to quit, but it would be worth it.
“I’ve never seen anything quite this bad, especially from a hypocrisy level,” he said.
The state’s leading anti-abortion organization, Tennessee Right To Life, stopped short of calling for any consequences for DesJarlais, saying in a statement issued Friday that it was unclear “how those tragic decisions have impacted or influenced his present views on the need to protect human life.”
The organization instead called for restricting access to abortions in Tennessee.
“The known details of circumstances involving Mr. DesJarlais and his former wife underscore the desperate need for Tennessee’s citizens and elected officials to recommit ourselves to reforming our state’s radical policy of abortion on demand,” the statement said.
The most serious action against DesJarlais was initiated by a Washington-based watchdog group. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington last month filed a formal complaint with the Tennessee Department of Health arguing that DesJarlais should be disciplined by the state for conducting an inappropriate sexual relationship with a patient. DesJarlais has said he doesn’t expect anything to come out of the complaint.
State officials say they’re not allowed to comment on complaints against doctors. Melanie Sloan, who heads the group that filed the complaint, called for a quick resolution.
“If there’s ever a case to do something about, it’s this one,” Sloan said. “With such a high-profile case, if they don’t act, who could expect they would act in any other case?”
Sloan said her group was also considering filing an ethics complaint against DesJarlais in the House for making statements during the campaign that the court transcript has revealed to be false.
She said one example is his statement that he did not record a phone conversation with the patient who said she was pregnant. In his sworn testimony in 2001, DesJarlais said he taped that call with the help of his former wife.
“The whole episode brings discredit upon the House, but they don’t have jurisdiction over things that happened before someone was member of Congress,” Sloan said. “But he was lying about the whole episode while he was a member of Congress.”
DesJarlais punched back last month when the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that a patient had said she had a sexual relationship with DesJarlais and he prescribed her painkillers. The campaign attacked the newspaper for “reporting a factually inaccurate story from a non-credible anonymous source who is lying.”
But on the witness stand, DesJarlais acknowledged dating at least two patients and prescribing a painkiller. “Yes, she is a patient and I wrote her prescriptions,” he said.
Campaigning in 2010, DesJarlais dismissed allegations that once held a gun in his mouth for three hours and dry-fired a revolver after his wife locked herself in a room.
“The court records prove those charges are false,” DesJarlais said in a statement at the time, charging his Democratic opponent with “presenting distortions of the truth.”
The transcripts of the court proceedings show DesJarlais acknowledged the gun incidents, though he said the noise his wife heard was him opening the gun to ensure it wasn’t loaded.
“Suicide threats is probably the most immature form of attention-seeking behavior that there is and I resorted to that on this evening and I regret it,” DesJarlais said in court. “I regret that she felt threatened by it, and I’m very ashamed of it.”
Even if the House ethics complaint is investigated and wrongdoing is found, it would likely result in a reprimand or fine, not expulsion.