Louisiana Sen. David Vitter today offered his first public response to questions about the behavior of his longtime aide, who resigned last month after reports surfaced that he had allegedly threatened to kill a female friend and held her at knife-point during a 90-minute ordeal.
In Baton Rouge to file papers for his reelection, with his wife at his side, Vitter was confronted by reporters wanting to know why he kept aide Brent Furer on his staff for two years after the violent incident, and what if any discipline his office imposed after he learned of Furer's guilty pleas to three related offenses. Furer resigned in June, after news of the altercation went public.
Vitter said the issue has been "misrepresented" and "misreported," and he called it old news.
"Well, the event was two years ago. The discipline he got in the office was two years ago," Vitter told reporters.
The senator's remarks came on the heels of an announcement from the National Organization for Women over the weekend calling on the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee to censure Sen. David Vitter for tolerating the behavior of a top aide who allegedly threatened to kill a female friend and held her at knife-point during a 90-minute ordeal.
"This is not just Sen. Vitter making another lapse in judgment," Terry O'Neill, the NOW president, told ABC News. "This is about his utter disdain for the women of this country. It's important for the ethics committee to address this if the U.S. Senate wants to have standards that actually respect women."
The Vitter aide who was involved in the 2008 altercation resigned last month after an ABC News report on the incident. Until Wednesday, Vitter repeatedly refused to answer questions about his decision to keep the man on his staff for two more years despite his arrest and subsequent guilty pleas to lesser charges.
Vitter: Furer Not Assigned to Women's Issues
When asked why he had assigned Furer to handle women's issues, Vitter said that he had done no such thing.
"He was not," Vitter said. "That's just one of several issues that have been completely misreported. Tanya Newman, Nicole Herbert in my office are assigned to women's issues. That's always been the case."
However, numerous legislative guide books over the past several years identify Furer as Vitter's point man on women's issues. And Beth Meeks, the executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence said in an interview Tuesday that she had been in Washington in June – just before news of the incident went public – and that Vitter had assigned Furer to meet with her to discuss the senator's views on domestic violence legislation. She said she was advised that Furer was the senator's point man on women's issues.
The group NOW announced its plans to pursue sanctions for Vitter during its annual conference over the weekend, with O'Neill saying afterwards that she had her "marching orders." The public rebuke is the latest attempt to force Vitter to publicly address the actions of longtime aide, Brent Furer, who had been assigned by the senator to handle women's issues.
Arrest reports and court records describe the woman's account of the attack, which allegedly took place in Furer's apartment. She told police she was held against her will, stabbed in the hand, and cut so deeply on the chin that she required eight stitches. Furer pleaded guilty to three lesser charges and did not serve any jail time.
When ABC News initially asked Vitter's office to respond to questions about the 2008 incident, Joel DiGrado, the Senator's spokesman, said in an email that Furor was initially told to leave the office pending the court's determination of what happened. "In April, after the court issued its penalty (fine and community service), and in consultation with the congressional employment legal office, further significant disciplinary action was taken and he was allowed to return to the office."
Several groups have raised concerns about the matter, including the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Brian Namey, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, called the incident "profoundly upsetting."
Furer's Actions Condemned
"He should have denounced the actions and released the staffer," Namey said. "This is a person whose job it was to assist the senator on violence against women issue. That he of all people would be involved in an attack on a woman, it's particularly disturbing."
There has been a similar reaction in Vitter's home state, where the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic violence referred to Furer's actions as "deplorable." Beth Meeks, the coalition's executive director, said in an interview that she had been in Washington in June – just before news of the incident went public – and that Vitter had assigned Furer to meet with her to discuss the senator's views on domestic violence legislation.
Meeks said she is no longer surprised to discover authority figures involved in domestic violence -- a problem that cuts across all demographic and socio-economic boundaries. But she said it was "obviously upsetting for us and disturbing that [Furer] was assigned to be the point person on women's issues."
Among the most vocal critics, naturally, has been the Democratic congressman who is seeking to unseat Vitter in the 2010 Louisiana senate race, Rep. Charlie Melancon. Melancon has attempted to turn the incident into a referendum on Vitter's attitudes towards women.
Last week, the campaign distributed a video that called on Vitter to explain why he continued to employ Furer after the 2008 arrest. State Rep. Karen St. Germain (Pierre Part), vice-chair of the Louisiana Legislative Women's Caucus, lent her name to the campaign's criticism of Vitter. "After years of dodging questions about scandals, it's time for David Vitter to come clean," St. Germain said in a statement released by the campaign. "Why did he protect Brent Furer, and what does Furer know about Vitter?"
Melancon also tried to capitalize on the situation to raise money for his campaigns, asking for contributions from anyone who is "as sickened as I am by Vitter's continuing disrespect of women."
Vitter has attempted to blunt the attacks, organizing a Women in Business Roundtable in Baton Rouge Tuesday, and telling local reporters that Furer's resignation had, in his mind, resolved the matter.