For years, Rep. Robert K. Dornan has eagerly attacked the moral character of various political adversaries, from his weakest election rivals to the President of the United States.
But now, it is the pugnacious Republican's reputation that is being assailed, and he doesn't like it.
Mike Farber, Dornan's Democratic opponent in central Orange County's 46th Congressional District, has used excerpts from old court records in campaign mailers that accuse the conservative incumbent of having physically attacked his wife, Sallie Dornan, on numerous occasions over 16 years beginning in 1960.
Both Dornans say Farber's allegations are lies. On Tuesday they filed a libel lawsuit against Farber and said they will seek a court order to prevent him from speaking about them or including them in campaign material.
"They are basically false allegations," said the Dornans' attorney, Kelly Woolsey. As a result of the Farber campaign mailers, "Bob Dornan is getting death threats. . . . It's causing a lot of embarrassment and humiliation to the children," she added.
The spousal abuse charges are not new. They were long the topic of whispers in political circles until last year, when the Dornan family, in a series of interviews with The Times, offered its own explanation of the court records.
In a story published in June, 1993, Dornan, wife Sallie and their children all said there was no spousal abuse by the congressman and insisted that the allegations were a result of drug abuse by Sallie Dornan.
Even so, for the first time in Dornan's 16-year congressional career, the domestic violence allegations have become a campaign issue as the Nov. 8 election approaches.
Beginning with a lilac-colored card that landed Oct. 15 in the mailboxes of Republican and independent voters in central Orange County, and continuing with another campaign mailer arriving in the district today, Farber has delivered a one-two punch that attempts to make Dornan's moral character the issue of the campaign.
"Congressman Bob Dornan was jailed for beating his wife," the first mailer claimed. "Would you vote for a man who beats his wife?"
The second campaign piece alleges there were others who also were on the receiving end of Dornan's temper, including an unnamed "gentleman" whom Farber, quoting court documents, alleges suffered "severe, permanent and disabling injuries" after an assault by Dornan.
The mailer also alleges that "in at least two separate incidents, an irate Congressman Dornan physically attacked and verbally assaulted two other members on the floor of the House of Representatives."
One widely reported incident involved Dornan grabbing the shirt and tie of then-Rep. Tom Downey (D-N.Y.) during a 1985 confrontation between the two, after Dornan called Downey "a draft-dodging wimp." The other incident involved a 1992 shouting match between Dornan and Rep. W.G. (Bill) Hefner (D-N.C.).
Dornan has decided not to comment further on the issue, choosing to respond with the lawsuit and a campaign mailer sent to voters late last week, which consists of a letter signed by his wife.
Dornan's lawsuit claims Farber took the spousal abuse charges--which have since been recanted by Sallie Dornan--and "intentionally and maliciously" reprinted and distributed them in his campaign mailers.
Dornan's lawyer said she will ask a judge today for a restraining order to keep Farber from using the information in his campaign.
Farber's campaign said the lawsuit is an attempt by Dornan to hide from his past.
"It's remarkable to me that Bob Dornan, the champion of sleaze, could be so thin-skinned," said Farber campaign spokesman Scott Moxley. "He does not want anybody to see the court records. You can't blame him, because it's a pretty ugly picture of his past."
Farber's attacks pose political peril for his own campaign because the statement about Dornan's alleged jailing may have gone beyond what is contained in court and police documents.
A Times review last year of court records showed that in June, 1966, a judge found Dornan guilty of a "violent attack" on his wife and ordered him to jail. But police records showed no evidence that the sentence was carried out.
"The record is quite clear: The judge issued multiple restraining orders and removed (child) custody from him and sentenced him to jail," Moxley said. "If he didn't serve (the jail sentence), why didn't he? That's something for him to explain."
The impetus for all the speculation stems from the Dornan case files, which contain four aborted divorce suits between 1960 and 1976. Among the records are detailed allegations by the Garden Grove congressman's wife that he beat her, "dragged her about the home . . . by her hair . . . (and) exhibited a revolver."
Last year, Sallie Dornan admitted in an interview with The Times that she perjured herself in court, saying she fabricated the charges against her husband because she was severely addicted to Darvon and Valium, prescription medications. With the backing of their children, the Dornans granted The Times access to private medical and police records to confirm their version of events.
After the story appeared, Dornan attacked it, saying he cooperated only after feeling "threatened" by The Times' decision to do the story. When the article focused on his wife, rather than him, he said, it "ceased to be a legitimate story, certainly not front-page news."
Now, ironically, Dornan is using the story to attack Farber and is offering copies of the Times article to voters.
Farber, a San Diego businessman who moved to Santa Ana to run for the congressional seat, said he does not believe the Dornans' story.
During a news conference Oct. 15 to unveil his first campaign "hit" piece, Farber emphasized he was attacking the character of the congressman, not of his wife, whom he described as a domestic violence victim trying to help save her husband's political career.
"I think Sallie Dornan is a fine person, a good mother, and in this case, an excellent spouse," Farber said. That statement was repeated in the follow-up campaign piece mailed this week to all district voters.
But Sallie Dornan, who has been married to the congressman for 39 years, doesn't see it that way.
"He used me to get Bob. That is a coward. That is a man of no integrity and no honor," she said during an interview Tuesday. "I am tired of turning my guts out and my kids' guts out."
Asked why he is employing the same aggressive campaign tactics he has criticized Dornan for using, the Democratic candidate replied: "This is the type of approach you have to have with Bob Dornan: head to head, man to man."
In his campaign mailings, Farber is offering voters copies of records from Los Angeles Superior Court, where the cases were filed.
In the Dornan campaign mailer, Sallie Dornan offers a brief description of events that occurred more than three decades ago, which began, she said, when she underwent three major surgeries that led to the development of the drug addiction.
"In poor health, my judgment impaired, I made terrible decisions and false accusations against my husband," the campaign mailer states.
The letter also explains her husband's loud outbursts. "My husband makes some people angry because he fights passionately and forcefully for our beliefs, but everything his opponent says is a lie. He has never harmed me," the letter by Sallie Dornan claims.
In an interview, Sallie Dornan said that "every woman should be so lucky" to have a husband who stands by his family. "There's all kinds of abuse, and I abused him" by making false allegations, she said.