Year in Review: Rep. Scott DesJarlais

Authored By James Harrison

During his first bid for re-election, Rep. Scott DesJarlais made headlines nationwide, though not for any reasons he would have preferred.

Before the final months of his campaign, DesJarlais saw his fourth piece of legislation pass the House-a bill that would prevent the IRS from collecting taxes on any amount of college loans following the death of an active service member.

DesJarlais, a Jasper physician, faced what appeared to be a manageable bid for a second term, having no primary challenger and facing Democrat state Sen. Eric Stewart in the general election. 

Stewart had sought to make issue of the congressman’s unwillingness to meet in debate-but the issue was cast to the wayside on Oct. 10, when The Huffington Post published a report that continues to have ramifications for the congressman’s political future. 

When he was a physician, going through a bitter divorce with his now ex-wife, DesJarlais-now a pro-life, pro family values congressman-had an affair with a patient and pressured her to have an abortion. Initially silent in the wake of the revelations, DesJarlais would soon label the report as “false attacks,” while asking supporters to contribute to a campaign that was about to be slammed by well-backed opposition groups targeting his seat. 

Three days later, DesJarlais would go on a talk radio program to publicly denounce the attacks. Although DesJarlais acknowledged a transcript detailing his conversation with an unnamed woman, including his encouragement for her to terminate a pregnancy, the congressman said there had been no pregnancy and no abortion, insisting that he had been using “strong rhetoric” in order to attempt to lead the woman into admitting that she was never actually pregnant.

The congressman also posted an open letter to his constituents, in which he said the recording of the conversation between him and the woman had been recorded secretly and against his knowledge.  

DesJarlais’ explanation did not deter his opponents from continuing to seek the full story on his past, as Democrats called for the entirety of his divorce records to be unsealed. The congressman also had his endorsement removed from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s website and was lampooned by the pundit Stephen Colbert.

But as a Washington, D.C.-based ethics group filed multiple complaints against the congressman, citing his actions with women who were his former patients, DesJarlais would release a poll declaring a “double-digit lead” over his opponent. The poll turned out to be a clear indicator of the election’s outcome, as DesJarlais went on to defeat Eric Stewart by a margin of 12 percentage points, even as multiple groups called for his resignation. 

But despite his victory, the congressman was far from finished in having to address his past. The day before Election Day, Tennessee Democrats had the congressman holed up in a Hamilton County courtroom, as a judge ruled that the 600-page court transcript of DesJarlais’ divorce proceedings would be released-though not before the election. 

Ten days after his re-election, the divorce transcript would be released-including additional information that could potentially be damning to DesJarlais’ next bid for congress in two years. Potential candidates began forming exploratory committees as the transcript showed DesJarlais had given sworn testimony that contradicted portions of his comments in the wake of the scandal, along with the revelation that he supported two abortions for his ex-wife and had engaged in multiple sexual relationships with additional women who were also his patients. 

Regardless, the congressman’s office said he remained “focused on the issues” and added that he planned to run again in 2014. 

At year’s end, DesJarlais was back in Washington D.C., doing just that. In late December, as the threat of a so-called “fiscal cliff” loomed over lawmakers, DesJarlais said he would have voted against a plan put forward by U.S. House Speaker John Boehner to avert the mix of tax increases and spending cuts.