NASHVILLE — Allegations that Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, who describes himself as pro-life, once pressured a woman with whom he'd had an affair to get an abortion drew condemnations from the lawmaker's Democratic opponent Wednesday.
Fourth Congressional District candidate Eric Stewart called the freshman lawmaker's actions "disgusting" and charged that DesJarlais, a physician, is a hypocrite.
DesJarlais "has proven over and over again that he cannot be trusted and this latest revelation is absolutely disqualifying," Stewart told reporters at a news conference following a Murfeesboro, Tenn., campaign event.
The undated transcript of DesJarlais, first elected to Congress two years ago, and the unidentified woman, who was his patient, was first reported earlier Wednesday by the Huffington Post, a liberal news website.
It appears to have been recorded in 2000 or 2001 as DesJarlais sought to put his troubled marriage to then-wife Susan DesJarlais back on track. The couple divorced in 2001 amid stormy circumstances that were revealed in DesJarlais' first campaign two years ago.
A partial copy obtained later by the Chattanooga Times Free Press quotes the physician telling the woman that "you told me you'd have an abortion, and now we're getting too far along without one."
The woman is quoted saying, "Yeah, but -- you know -- you told me that you would have time to go with me and everything."
DesJarlais is quoted saying, "I said, if I could, I would, didn't I? And I will try?" He later says "if we need to go to Atlanta, or whatever, to get this solved and get it over with so we can get on with our lives, then let's do it."
DesJarlais' campaign did not address questions about the truthfulness of the transcript but instead launched into attack mode, contending it was "old news from the last election cycle that Tennesseans have already widely rejected."
"Desperate personal attacks do not solve our nation's problems, yet it appears that there are those who choose to continue to engage in the same gutter politics that were characterized by national media as the nastiest in the nation just two years ago," the statement said.
The campaign added that "since the congressman's opponents cannot attack him on his independent, conservative and pro-life record in Congress they have once again resorted to pure character assassination."
DesJarlais was elected in 2010 in an upset victory over the Democratic incumbent, Lincoln Davis.
During the campaign, Davis assailed DesJarlais' character after court documents surfaced from the Republican's 2001 divorce with Susan DesJarlais.
In a 2000 motion, Susan DesJarlais accused her former husband of "dry firing a gun outside the plaintiff's locked bedroom door, admission of suicidal ideation, holding a gun in his mouth for three hours, an incident of physical intimidation at the hospital; and previous threatening behavior."
DesJarlais denied the allegations.
In an interview Wednesday, Davis said that during the last week or so of the 2010 race, his campaign received an anonymous transcript about DesJarlais but he didn't see it until later. Davis, a fierce abortion opponent, said he was "shocked by the content" and questioned "is this really true."
But he said Susan DesJarlais contacted him in March following news accounts that local election officials had purged him from voting rolls and rejected his efforts to vote in his home county during the presidential primary.
She was convinced her former husband was responsible. Davis said he told her he didn't think so. Davis told her he regretted dredging up the couple's divorce but also asked her what she knew of the transcript.
"She said, 'Yeah, he recorded the conversation himself and let me listen to it,'" Davis said. "She also said the woman said in court she did have an abortion."
The Huffington Post reported two other sources familiar with the situation confirmed Davis' account. Davis, the website reported, did not provide the transcript. Nor did he provide it to the Times Free Press.
In the transcript, DesJarlais is quoted admitting to the affair with the woman but questions whether she was actually pregnant and whether he was responsible for it, noting she had been with someone else just three days before.
"Well, I've been going crazy," he is quoted saying. "I mean, if Susan could talk to you, she'd tell you that I've been psychotic for months over this. I don't sleep at night."
He adds that "I mean, it's like I'm trying to build my family back together just waiting for it to fall apart, and it's been eating me apart."
He is also quoted accusing her of having "lied to me about something that caused us to be in this situation, and that's not my fault, that's yours."
The woman says, "Well, it's your fault for sleeping with your patient."
The Tennessee Republican Party is standing behind DesJarlais with GOP Executive Director Adam Nickas saying, "This is the same type of desperate smear campaign used by Lincoln Davis in 2010 which voters overwhelmingly rejected, and we trust they'll reject these same attacks by Democrat Eric Stewart in 2012."
Tennessee Right to Life President said in a statement that "I don't have a comment at this time specific to today's claims."
But Harris said the group endorsed Davis in 2010 "and worked for his relection based on his demonstrated commitment." The group has made no endorsement in this year's race "due to the fact that neither Dr. DesJarlais nor Mr. Stewart meet criteria for endorsement," Harris said.
Moreover, he added, "pro-life Tennesseans were disappointed that Dr. DesJarlais refused to join other members of Tennessee's delegation in co-sponsoring a key legislative priority."
That was legislation which sought to prevent abortions past 20 weeks gestation in the District of Columbia except to save the mother's life. DesJarlais wasn't present to cast a vote for it, Harris said. Nor did he join Tennessee's six other GOP congressmen in cosponsoring it, he added.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...