The remaining unknown details of U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais’ tumultuous 2001 divorce were made public last week by way of nearly 600 pages of transcripts from the proceedings. Though new facts were revealed, the theme was the same — affairs and abortions attested to by the anti-abortion, family values congressman himself.
Nevertheless, a congressman he remains. DesJarlais cruised to re-election on earlier this month, besting his Democratic opponent Eric Stewart by nine points. State Democrats filed a motion to unseal the divorce records just over a week before the election, following revelations that DesJarlais had pressured a former patient mistress to get an abortion. But a judge ruled that the records could not be released until they were fully transcribed, effectively delaying more damaging headlines until after voters went to the polls.
With their release came some answers, and some more questions:
What new information was revealed by the release of the court records?
Transcripts of DesJarlais’ testimony revealed that his former wife Susan had two abortions while they were together, at least one of which he described as a “mutual decision.” The congressman, who has consistently campaigned as an anti- abortion conservative and supported legislation that would restrict abortion rights, went on to testify that it was a “difficult and poor choice” and that there are “probably regrets both ways.”
DesJarlais also testified that he and his wife had an agreement at one point during their separation, allowing each of them to see other people. During that time, DesJarlais testified, had sexual relationships with two patients, three co-workers, and a drug company representative. During his relationship with one of the patients, he bought her an $875 watch, a plane ticket to Las Vegas and also prescribed her medication.
His testimony also reveals that he lost $4,000 gambling during a trip to Las Vegas in May of 2000.
But while the facts contained in the records are more than a decade old, they expose lies the congressman told just weeks ago.
In a Facebook letter to supporters last month, DesJarlais addressed the initial transcript that showed him pressuring a former patient to get an abortion. He said that he had “used rather strong rhetoric” during the phone call in an attempt to get her to admit that she was not pregnant. However, transcripts of that woman’s testimony show that she testified under oath that she had been pregnant, though she declined to reveal the outcome of the pregnancy.
Moreover, DesJarlais said the media had falsely reported that he had recorded the conversation himself, claiming in the same Facebook letter that he had been recorded “unknowingly and without my consent.” According to his own testimony though, he and his former wife recorded the call themselves.
Why didn’t Democrats pursue these records earlier, when they could have been more useful politically?
Upon the release of the DesJarlais divorce records last week, outgoing Tennessee Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester renewed his call for DesJarlais’ resignation.
“I’m astounded when I read the transcript,” he told The City Paper, “because it’s shocking to read in his own words the admissions that he makes regarding sex with patients, a doctor’s wife, a drug rep, and one patient — he admitted in open court prescribing Darvocet, buying her a plane ticket to Las Vegas, and buying her jewelry.”
Forrester also reiterated the party’s stated motive for pursuing the release of the records.
“This is a dirty politician who should resign, and our interest in releasing this transcript is for transparency so that the voters in the 4th District know exactly what he’s done,” he said.
But why didn’t the party go after the full record of DesJarlais’ damaging past earlier, when it might have had more of an effect on the election they ultimately lost? While revelations about affairs and abortions only surfaced a month ago, allegations from his bitter divorce came up in 2010. Then, his Democratic opponent Lincoln Davis attacked him with allegations that he had dry-fired a gun outside of his former wife’s door (an allegation which DesJarlais denied during his testimony in the divorce proceedings).
So why didn’t Democrats pursue what were sure to be damning court records at some point during the two years since the first allegations emerged? Forrester’s answer suggests it might not have occurred to them.
“We pursued this on the timeline when the information came to our attention,” he said, “which was through the Huffington Post article and when that information broke the transcript of the audio tape where he coerces or induces his patient to have an abortion. That’s when we wanted to unseal the court records.”
What would happen if DesJarlais resigned?
Per Article I of the United States Constitution, vacancies in the U.S. House of Representatives may only be filled by election and not through gubernatorial appointment.
The Constitution is silent on how these elections are held, but in Tennessee, the governor must order a special election, with primaries set 55 to 60 days after the seat becomes vacant and a general election between 100 and 107 days from the date of the vacancy.
Were DesJarlais to resign before he is sworn in for his second term — this happens Jan. 3 — his congressional seat would be vacant for the lame-duck session, but presumably, since his election has already been certified, he would then have to resign a second time or simply decline to be sworn in for that second term in January, at which point the seat would be vacant, compelling Gov. Haslam to call the special election according to state law.
During periods of vacancy, the Clerk of the House of Representatives maintains an office for the unrepresented district so constituent service isn’t totally eliminated.