Vitter Aide Resigns After ABC News Disclosures About Past
Drunk Driving, Attack on Girlfriend, Open Warrant Detailed in ABC News Report
By MATTHEW MOSK and BRIAN ROSS
June 23, 2010
A trusted aide to Louisiana Sen. David Vitter resigned Wednesday morning after ABC News reported that he had been arrested for attacking his ex-girlfriend with a knife, and had an open warrant for his arrest in Baton Rouge on a drunk driving charge.
The aide, Brent Furer, worked on the Republican senator's last campaign, and has spent the last five years posted in his Washington office to handle, among other things, women's issues.
An ABC News investigation out this morning revealed that Furer had repeated brushes with the law dating back to the 1990s. Those who have had encounters with Furer told ABC News that his presence on Vitter's payroll raised serious questions about the senator's judgment. Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said it concerns her that the senator has talked so forcefully as an advocate for women and an opponent of drunk driving, and yet kept someone with Furer's background on his staff.
"It says something terrible about Senator Vitter's judgment that this is the kind of guy he wants to keep in his office," said Sloan, who first alerted ABC News to the assault case. She said Furer's resignation was "an obvioius attempt by the senator to save himself with women voters as heads into his reelection campaign this fall."
"Senator Vitter knowingly kept this dangerous person on his staff through his drunk driving arrest in 2003 and his chilling domestic violence assault conviction in 2008," said Sloan. "Why have him resign only now?"
Furer's resignation was reported at 10:30 Wednesday morning by the Associated Press. Vitter spokesman Joel DiGrado told AP that Vitter's office was aware of Furer's arrest for attacking his ex-girlfriend two years ago, but said Vitter was unaware of any other legal issues until the ABC News report. "Senator Vitter accepted the employee's resignation today after learning of the other incidents," spokesman Joel DiGrado said.
Yet in 2003, after Furer pleaded guilty to driving drunk, a pastor who was Vitter's regional director in Louisiana oversaw Furer's court-ordered community service, and did so while Furer continued to work as a key paid staffer on Vitter's first senate campaign.
Reached at Vitter's senate office last week, Furer declined to comment, saying he was "too swamped" with the office's response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. He did not respond to questions emailed by ABC News. Vitter, a 49-year-old first-term Republican who is up for reelection in November, also declined to comment when approached in front of his senate office building Tuesday.
Vitter spokesman DiGrado acknowledged the senator had concerns about the 2008 arrest, in which Furer was accused of holding his ex-girlfriend against her will for 90 minutes, threatening to kill her, placing his hand over her mouth, and cutting her in the hand and neck.
"After the January 2008 incident, he was told to leave the office pending the court's determination of what happened," DiGrado said in an emailed response to questions from ABC News.
DiGrado said that after Furer was sentenced, Vitter imposed "further significant disciplinary action" in consultation with the congressional employment legal office, though he would not elaborate on what that entailed. He said the senator hired Furer because of the aide's military service during the first Gulf War.
Furer's presence on Vitter's staff is just the latest instance in which the senator's publicly stated views on women's issues appear to clash with his actions. In 2007, Vitter issued a public apology after acknowledging being a client of the so-called D.C. Madam. The 2008 allegations against Vitter's longtime aide are described in chilling detail in court papers.
Furer Stabbed and Threatened Girlfriend
The victim, Nicolia Demopoulos, 27, declined to be interviewed. But a police report, photos submitted to the court, and charging documents all shed light on the alleged attack.
After drinking at a restaurant, the two returned to Furer's Capitol Hill apartment, the report says. Furer "would not let her leave." He "pulled on her coat, which caused it to rip," then "pulled out a knife and stabbed [her] in the hand," the police report says.
Charging documents allege that Furer became angry when he found phone numbers for other men in her Blackberry. He smashed her phone when she tried to call 911, the records say, and he shoved her to the floor when she tried to leave, then held his hand over her mouth and threw her on a bed.
Demopoulos told police Furer "uttered the words to her, 'Do you want to get serious.'" Then, the arrest warrant states, Furer "grabbed an unknown object and held it under her neck. The suspect asked the complainant, 'Do you want to die?' The complainant replies and she stated, 'No, I don't want to die.'"
After a 90 minute standoff, Furer made her promise not to call police, and then allowed her to leave. She fled to a friend's house, and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. A slash on her chin took eight stitches to close, the police report says.
Furer eventually pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges, including threatening harm and destruction of property. The assault and weapons charges were dismissed. He was sentenced to 180 days confinement, two years of supervised probation, 40 hours of community service, and treatment for drug and alcohol dependency. After getting a harsh warning from Superior Court Judge Lee Satterfield, his jail term was suspended.
Thomas J. Kelly, Jr., of the white shoe D.C. law firm Venable LLP represented Furer. In an interview with ABC News Wednesday, Kelly said he could not recall whether Sen. Vitter was involved in connecting Furer with representation from Venable for the case. Kelly, who is described on the firm web site as "a seasoned white collar criminal defense and trial lawyer," said Furer paid for his representation.
"I can't talk about how I got hired," Kelly said. "I usually keep that confidential."
In a response to emailed questions, Vitter's office said the senator did not help Furer select or pay for a lawyer.
As a legislative aide, Furer was paid about $54,000 last year. That was his highest salary in the five years he has been on the payroll, the records show.
Furer's Pay Barely Interrupted
Senate payroll records indicate the 2008 altercation between Furer and his girlfriend registered within the senate office -- Vitter's office suspended Furer's pay on Jan. 17, five days after the incident. But his payments resumed on Jan. 22.
The 2008 case was not the first brush with the law for Furer. Court records and published reports show he has been arrested for driving under the influence at least three times, and once for cocaine possession.
In one instance, in May 2003, police chased Furer's swerving vehicle, and saw what they believed to be Furer and a female passenger fighting as the car crossed back and forth over the center lane divider, according to the arrest report. Furer kept driving after the woman exited the vehicle and was eventually pulled over. The arrest report says his blood alcohol measured .132, and noted that Furer was "very verbally abusive towards the police."
He pleaded guilty to DWI, was placed on probation for one year, and was ordered to serve 32 hours of community service. Papers Furer filed with the court show his service involved painting a New Orleans church, as overseen by the pastor, Rev. Malcolm Richard. Richard also works as one of Sen. Vitter's regional directors.
The dates of Furer's community service also coincide with the dates he was on the payroll of Vitter's senate campaign. On Aug. 2, 2004, for instance, Furer reported doing eight hours of community service at a Salem United Church of Christ camp in New Orleans, under the stewardship of Rev. Richard. Campaign finance records show that on the same date, Furer received $1,500 in payments for "campaign management."
Rev. Richard, reached by cell phone in his Louisiana parish, said Sen. Vitter did not appeal to him to help Furer with his community service. But he did not want to discuss the matter.
"I'm really not supposed to talk," he said. "Everybody makes mistakes in life. We all do. But that's all I'll say."
In addition, Furer was ordered to attend a "victim impact panel" run by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which he attended in 2005, in Howard County, Maryland, while serving on the senator's staff.
Vitter has made outreach to MADD part of his agenda in Washington, posing for a photo with Laura Dean-Mooney, the national president of the organization. On his Facebook page, Sen. Vitter declared, "I met with MADD's National President this morning to discuss additional efforts that can help reduce drunk driving. I look forward to continuing to work with them on ways we can save some of the 12,000 lives every year that are lost in drunk driving incidents."
Another ugly incident occurred in late 2008 when Furer was driving to pick up medication from a Washington area pharmacy. Furer, a former Marine and veteran of the first Gulf War, has told lawyers he takes medication for treatment of post traumatic stress disorder.
The ride turned ugly when Furer and another former Marine, Gregory Blake became caught up in a violent road rage incident in late 2008. As Furer allegedly chased Blake through the streets of Washington in their SUVS, Furer struck a motorcyclist, throwing the cyclist to the pavement and breaking his femur, according to a lawsuit that followed. When police arrived, Furer flashed his senate ID and told them he worked for Sen. Vitter, according to court records. Furer's insurance company settled the civil case.
Blake said he was outraged to learn where Furer worked.
"That guy should not be working for the U.S. government," he said.
After ABC News sent questions to Furer, Retired Marine General James E. Livingston wrote to defend the senator's decision to keep him on staff. Furer, the general said, "witnessed unspeakable tragedies most in life are fortunate enough to have never witnessed" while serving in Kuwait.
"This is clearly politically driven and it's unfortunate that some are willing to ruin the reputation of a Marine veteran for a political story," Livingston wrote. "When faced with Brent's troubles, Sen. Vitter could have chosen political expediency and allowed Brent to flounder on his own in a time of need. Instead, he tried to allow Brent the best opportunity to seek help and get better while never downplaying the severity of the charges."