By Chas Sisk / The Tennnessean
CHATTANOOGA - A Hamilton County judge ruled that most of the records from U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais' messy divorce could be made public, but the release of a potentially embarrassing transcript was delayed until Election Day or later.
Following a high-stakes hearing here on the morning before the election, Circuit Court Judge Jacqueline Bolton ruled that a transcript of the 2001 trial should be released. But she also agreed with an attorney for DesJarlais that its release would come only after it had been completed, dealing a setback to Democrats who had hoped to see it published as soon as possible.
The delay concluded an intense day at the Hamilton County Courthouse that included an appearance by DesJarlais. The first-term Republican from South Pittsburg described the efforts to publicize his divorce as "an attack on my family."
But lawyers for the Tennessee Democratic Party and DesJarlais' ex-wife, Susan Feltman, said the records should be released to give voters a full picture of the doctor-turned-congressman.
"She's heard the lies that Dr. DesJarlais has said to the constituents for the last several months," said Mike Galligan, Feltman's attorney.
DesJarlais has been fighting allegations that he slept with at least two patients before his 2001 divorce was finalized. DesJarlais acknowledged one of the relationships and has not disputed the second, but he says he and his ex-wife had an agreement to see other people.
DesJarlais has asked voters to judge him on his relationship with his current wife, Amy.
But Democrats say voters should be told whether DesJarlais used his position as a doctor to find dates with his patients. Last month, an unnamed woman told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that DesJarlais prescribed pain medication for her while they were on dates, and she says she and DesJarlais used marijuana together.
"This isn't about dirty politics - it's about a dirty politician," said Kevin Teets, campaign manager for state Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, DesJarlais' opponent in Tuesday's election, in a prepared statement. "Voters deserve better."
At first, it appeared that a complete transcript of testimony from DesJarlais' divorce trial would be released Monday.
Bolton ruled at midday that the divorce filings were public records under state law, with the sole exceptions being for six sealed filings that are believed to pertain to a child DesJarlais and Feltman share. Attorneys for all sides agreed that filings specifically about the child should remain confidential.
The transcript's release was delayed, however, when Bolton agreed that it would be made public only if it was published in its entirety. Harvey Cameron, DesJarlais' attorney and a friend of the congressman, said the transcript would reveal affairs by Feltman.
A clerk in Marion County, where the divorce was litigated and DesJarlais still resides, informed the court late in the day that it would be impossible for her to complete the transcript before the end of business Monday. Expected to run as long as 700 pages, the transcript could be released while voters go to the polls on Tuesday or after the election is over.
"If I were a doctor who had sex with his patients and two of those patients testified at a hearing, I wouldn't want that transcript to come out, especially before my election," said Brandon Puttbrese, a spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party, who attended the hearing. "This is just a patented stall."
Bolton, who took the case after a Marion County judge recused himself, declined to order release of a partial transcript.
The hearing nonetheless brought more attention to DesJarlais' troubles a day before voters go to the polls.
Since initial reports last month that DesJarlais dated a patient - a woman whom he later urged to carry out an abortion, though he maintained he knew she was not pregnant but used strong language to get her to admit as much - the congressman has made few public appearances. He has repeatedly condemned efforts to publicize his divorce as smear tactics.
Rushing from the courtroom to a nearby vehicle soon after the hearing's conclusion, DesJarlais declined to discuss the allegations with reporters. Later, his office issued a statement in which he blamed the Democratic Party, his ex-wife and his Democratic predecessor, U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis of Pall Mall, for raising the issue.
"My opponent and his far-left political allies have done all they can to make this election about everything besides my record in Congress," he said. "In fact, it seems that the only opponent that I have ever had to run against is a 14 year old divorce."
Democrats say there are larger issues than DesJarlais' reelection bid, including possible professional misconduct. Tennessee's medical ethics code prohibits sexual contact between doctors and their patients. Doctors can lose their licenses if they are found to have dated patients.
A complaint about that has been filed with the state, but officials have said they cannot comment on whether an investigation is taking place unless investigators bring formal charges to the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners.