published Friday, May 24th, 2013

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais fined for sex with 2 patients


by Chris Carroll
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    U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais
    Photo by John Rawlston.
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WASHINGTON — Tennessee's top medical disciplinary panel fined licensed physician and U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais $500 for sexual relationships he had with two female patients, inspiring critics to say the punishment didn't fit the crime.

"There are more expensive speeding tickets," said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group that filed complaints against DesJarlais and helped spur a state probe. "Tennessee authorities apparently believe sexual exploitation of women is less serious than speeding."

The congressman must pay the $500 fine -- $250 per patient, according to the order -- within 60 days. Documents also show he's responsible for up to $1,000 in costs for the state's investigation.

Before this week's ruling, DesJarlais faced anything from probation to suspension to revocation of his medical license.

A DesJarlais spokesman declined to comment or make the congressman available. But in an interview with the Tennessean, DesJarlais expressed relief.

"I take responsibility for past mistakes and am happy to get this resolved," DesJarlais told the Nashville newspaper, adding that House colleagues and others "felt the same way. They are happy to get this resolved."

None of the Volunteer State's six other House Republicans responded Thursday when asked about the fine and whether they support DesJarlais' re-election effort. Meanwhile, Tennessee's senators kept the situation at arm's length.

"Senator Corker does not plan to comment on this matter between the congressman and a state agency," said Laura Herzog, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Bob Corker.

An aide to Sen. Lamar Alexander said: "This is a matter solely between the congressman and his constituents."

QUESTIONS REMAIN

Documents obtained Thursday by the Chattanooga Times Free Press show the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners found DesJarlais slept with two female patients in 2000 and violated a state law prohibiting "unprofessional conduct" among physicians.

First elected to Congress in 2010, the Jasper Republican waived his right to dispute facts compiled by state investigators, according to a consent order signed by DesJarlais. Medical board chairman Dr. Michael D. Zanolli declined to discuss board deliberations or address criticism toward its unanimous decision, which effectively closes the case.

"The board order speaks for itself," Zanolli said.

But the investigation apparently did not answer every question about DesJarlais' relationships.

"No documentation exists to show whether or not the physician-patient relationship was severed prior to the commencement of a romantic relationship with either female patient," the board wrote.

With a few exceptions, most medical records must be retained at least 10 years after a physician's "last professional contact with the patient." The state said DesJarlais slept with female patients between January and May of 2000.

Zanolli declined to comment on the state's case, but Tennessee Department of Health spokeswoman Shelley Walker hinted at potential difficulties late last year as details emerged.

"There are issues related to something that happened some time ago," Walker said at the time. "Witnesses have to be tracked down; documents may or may not be located."

LOOKING AHEAD

A traumatic chapter appears to be over for DesJarlais, given the state's completed investigation. But in politics, it's the opposition party's job to remind voters of an incumbent's troubled past. Democrats plan to do just that as the Jasper Republican seeks a third term next year.

"He is guilty of abusing his power, and he's broken the trust of patients and voters alike," Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese said. "DesJarlais is a continued embarrassment to Tennessee, and he does not reflect the values of voters in his district."

The affairs are among several personal revelations that surfaced before and after DesJarlais captured a second term last year.

A month before the election, the Huffington Post reported DesJarlais tried to persuade one of his patient-lovers to get an abortion. Weeks later, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported on a second woman who said she had an affair with DesJarlais while he was prescribing her pain medication. (The medical board order does not discuss details from either story.)

After DesJarlais won re-election, the Times Free Press obtained a court transcript that showed the congressman encouraged his ex-wife to get two abortions. Today, DesJarlais describes himself as "pro-life." Two well-financed 2014 primary challengers -- state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, and state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas -- have emerged amid the fallout.

Referring to his relationships with patients, DesJarlais reiterated to the Tennessean a longtime claim that the events of 2000 amount to ancient history.

"This predates my 11-year marriage to my current wife, and I treasure the support of her and my family," DesJarlais said.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfreepress.com or 423-280-2025.

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