POLL: Should U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais resign?
Tennessee Democrats raged and state Republicans went quiet Thursday as new revelations rocked the post-re-election world of U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn.
A decade before reaching Capitol Hill as a self-proclaimed "consistent supporter of pro-life values," DesJarlais encouraged his ex-wife's decision to get two abortions before their marriage, according to the congressman's sworn testimony during his 2001 divorce trial. First reported Thursday by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the trial transcript also confirms DesJarlais had a battery of potentially unethical relationships while serving in a position of medical authority.
Under oath, DesJarlais admitted sexual trysts with at least two patients, three coworkers and a drug representative while he was chief of staff at Grandview Medical Center in Jasper, Tenn. Serving a dual role as doctor and lover, DesJarlais prescribed one patient pain medication and lavished her with an $875 watch and a plane ticket to Las Vegas, records show.
The transcript corroborates accounts given to the Times Free Press in October by one of the patients who had a sexual relationship with DesJarlais. The newspaper continues to grant her and the other women anonymity because of the nature of the testimony.
DesJarlais spokesman Robert Jameson did not respond to multiple requests for comment throughout the day, and state GOP officials distanced themselves from the situation.
"We're not going to speak for the congressman," Tennessee Republican Party Executive Director Adam Nickas said. "Any questions need to be directed towards him."
According to the American Medical Association, sexual contact "that occurs concurrent with the patient-physician relationship constitutes sexual misconduct."
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester said DesJarlais should resign his 4th Congressional District seat and "be barred from practicing medicine."
"The power brokers in the Republican Party can no longer hide behind DesJarlais' shameful and selfish lies," Forrester said. "Reality is staring them in the face. It's time they addressed these disgusting facts and held him accountable for his continued pattern of lies, deception and hypocrisy."
An attorney for the congressman's ex-wife said she has no comment at this point regarding her ex-husband's court testimony.
The Times Free Press obtained the 679-page trial transcript eight days after DesJarlais soundly defeated Democratic challenger Eric Stewart in the 4th District, persevering through media reports of sex with patients and urging one to get an abortion to secure a second term.
The Tennessee Democratic Party had attempted to get the transcript before the Nov. 6 election, but the court delayed the process because the document was not typed up in its complete form.
Still, party officials on Thursday said the transcript rightly jeopardizes DesJarlais' still-active medical license and congressional future.
"Voters deserve to have these surprises unmasked so they know exactly what they have in Congress," state Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese said.
DesJarlais, a family-values conservative who rode 2010's tea party wave to Washington, testified his ex-wife's earlier abortion stemmed from medical issues.
"... [She] was on an experimental drug called Lupron and was not supposed to have gotten pregnant. There were potential risks. It was a therapeutic," he said.
DesJarlais backed a second abortion after she returned from a military stint in Saudi Arabia a few years before they married in 1995.
"[It] was after she had gotten back from Desert Storm and things were not going well between us and it was a mutual decision," he said.
The general practitioner reflected on both abortions in his testimony in Marion County Chancery Court.
"I don't think that it was easy for either one of us," he said. "I think it was a very difficult and poor choice and I think that there are probably regrets both ways."
Eleven years after his testimony, DesJarlais' official website states "all life should be cherished and protected." The physician-turned-politician has proven himself a reliable vote for anti-abortion legislation, scoring the National Right to Life's coveted 100 percent rating.
The transcript reveals new details about DesJarlais' interactions with a 24-year-old-patient, who claimed she became pregnant with DesJarlais' child during a brief fling in 2000 that ended with the doctor pressing her to have an abortion.
DesJarlais, who is now 48 years old, admitted in court to urging the woman over the phone to get an abortion, but said the whole conversation was a scheme orchestrated by him and his wife -- with whom he had reconciled -- to get the 24-year-old to admit she was not really pregnant.
"She goes, 'I will have an abortion. This will never be a problem of yours,'" DesJarlais testified. "And I think that she was trying to get me to pay her money and I refused to because there was no proof of the pregnancy."
DesJarlais testified he and his wife recorded his phone conversation with the woman "to find out whether the girl was telling the truth or not."
That directly contradicts the congressman's campaign Facebook page, where he told supporters the phone conversation "was recorded without my knowledge."
" ... [The] media wrongly reported that I recorded the conversation myself," DesJarlais wrote in the Oct. 12 note that was "liked" by 521 people. "I was recorded unknowingly and without my consent."
In court proceedings, DesJarlais' attorney, Stephen Greer, unsuccessfully pressed the 24-year-old patient to admit that she had never been pregnant.
"Mr. [Thomas] Austin asked you about your pregnancy or whatever. You apparently weren't pregnant, were you?" he asked.
"Yes," the woman retorted. "I was."
Ultimately, the woman refused to offer more details when attorneys asked her about the outcome of her pregnancy.
"I really don't care to answer that," she said. "I mean, I don't have a child by Dr. DesJarlais and that's a personal thing."
However, she said, "I was pretty much sure that he was the father of this child."
In further proceedings, DesJarlais acknowledged that the woman was not the only patient he had a sexual relationship with that year.
DesJarlais testified he carried on a four-month sexual affair with another patient and prescribed pills for her during their relationship. He stressed there was "nothing wrong" with the prescriptions he wrote, which included the painkiller Darvocet, and was indignant when asked about claims he had handled medication improperly.
"I don't feel real obligated to respond to that. I think it's ludicrous," he said. "I've never been challenged or questioned in terms of my integrity before."
He later admitted to buying the patient a $409 plane ticket to Las Vegas in May of 2000 -- a trip she did not, in the end, take.
"Does that hospital not care that you are fooling around with patients out there?" asked DesJarlais' wife's attorney, Thomas Austin.
"They have not complained to me," said DesJarlais, who later added that he had used "poor judgment."
Grandview Medical Center representatives declined to comment on DesJarlais' previous status as chief of staff.
During the divorce trial, a number DesJarlais' colleagues and friends defended him, saying he was a caring, professional physician and a good father.
Verno Davidson, who identified herself as Grandview's chief nursing officer at the time and a close neighbor of the DesJarlais family, said he was "very positive, both personally and professionally."
"I have never seen a child that is attached to his father as that baby is," she said. "And I will say that yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He -- you can just see it in his eyes."
At the end of his testimony, DesJarlais said he didn't have any plans to leave Marion County despite the bitter divorce and the potentially career-damaging revelations that came with it.
"It's been the only home [our son] has known," he said.
"I've got a practice with three to four thousand loyal patients that I would not have to probably hang my head had a lot of things not been verbalized in the fashion that they were, but I'm not hanging my head. I'm ashamed of things that have happened, I'm moving on, and I'll be fine."
But according to Republican state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, the congressman's political life could be endangered in 2014. Asked before Thursday's disclosures how many Republican senators he expects might challenge DesJarlais in the 4th District primary, Ramsey quipped, "How many live in it?"
Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.