Eric Stewart, Scott DesJarlais attack over legal claims

photo Eric Stewart, from left, Scott DesJarlais

NASHVILLE - Debate in Tennessee's bitter 4th District congressional campaign turned over the weekend to the respective candidates' past legal problems.

Democrat Eric Stewart was sued by Citibank in November 2011 for failing to pay on nearly $5,000 in credit card debt, Franklin County General Sessions Court records show.

Republican incumbent Scott DesJarlais, a physician, has a "history" of medical malpractice, state Democrats claim, citing claims in 1991 and 2004.

Citibank sued Stewart on Dec. 6, 2011, a little over a month after the state senator and insurance agent announced he was running for Congress.

DesJarlais campaign manager Brandon Lewis said the lawsuit underscores a pattern of financial mismanagement that makes Stewart unqualified to tackle the nation's debts.

"When Tennesseans are struggling to find jobs, we can't count on someone with failed businesses, multiple IRS tax liens and warrants for unpaid personal debts," he said.

Small businesses "know that Eric Stewart's support of Barack Obama's policies and Obamacare will mean additional tax burdens that may put them out of business and cost Tennesseans even more jobs," Lewis said.

Attorney Bill Shick, who represented Citibank, said Stewart settled the debt Dec. 27, 2011, but the suit wasn't officially dropped until March 6.

In August, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that the U.S. Internal Revenue Service slapped Stewart with property liens totaling nearly $25,000 in 2002 and 2011 for not paying his personal and business taxes on time.

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The lien related to his personal taxes was later paid off and removed in 2003, Franklin County Register of Deeds records show. The business lien relating to payroll taxes at Stewart's insurance company was removed earlier this year after the Times Free Press article was published, records show.

DesJarlais' campaign also has criticized Stewart over an audit of his 2008 Senate race disclosures that uncovered multiple problems, including a lack of documentation on thousands of dollars in spending. Stewart was fined $100.

In a statement Saturday evening, Stewart said, "I've struggled financially at times, and I'm not hiding that. Judy [his wife] and I have worked hard to take care of our two kids and make ends meet. When I talk about fighting for working families, it's something I mean. I know what it's like to run a small business and be worried about whether you're going to make payroll."

He added, "Voters, not Congressman DesJarlais, can decide whether my family's financial struggles disqualify me from running for office. He's a rich doctor that's admitted to sleeping with two of his patients. If voters want another rich man in Congress, I'm not it."

Court claims

Already rocked by revelations that DesJarlais dated at least two patients while separated from his first wife, his campaign over the weekend responded to new charges by the Tennessee Democratic Party that his medical practice shows a "history of lawsuits."

Democrats cited a 1991 malpractice suit in Kansas and Tennessee records indicating he settled a malpractice claim here in 2004.

Kansas court records show a hospital, DesJarlais and another doctor were sued in a case involving a newborn they delivered who had a severe form of cerebral palsy.

After a difficult labor, the other doctor determined a caesarian section was necessary and instructed a nurse to push the baby's head up the birth canal to accommodate the procedure, according to a Kansas appellate court opinion.

The jury ruled in favor of DesJarlais and the other defendant, and the appellate court upheld the ruling.

And Tennessee Health Department records show DesJarlais in 1994 settled an "above average" malpractice claim of at least $75,000. The records contain no additional information, and Democrats said they could not find a publicly filed lawsuit. A Democratic Party spokesman said the actions raise issues of trust.

Lewis called the charges "an eleventh-hour attempt by a losing campaign and dying state Democratic Party to do anything but talk about Eric Stewart's plans for higher taxes on small businesses, Obamacare and support for Barack Obama. That doesn't even deserve comment."

The revelations about DesJarlais dating patients -- drawn from sealed divorce records -- made national headlines. They included charges that the anti-abortion congressman urged one woman to get an abortion when she said she was pregnant by him. Another woman told the Times Free Press she and DesJarlais smoked marijuana together and he prescribed medications for her while on dates.

The DesJarlais campaign claimed the revelations were inaccurate but never offered specifics.

The Tennessee Democratic Party is seeking a court order to unseal records from DesJarlais' 2001 divorce. A hearing is set for Monday in Hamilton County Circuit Court.