DES MOINES, Iowa – Years before her divorce, Sen. Joni Ernst was assaulted by her husband after she confronted him about his alleged affair with their daughter’s babysitter, she wrote in court filings.
Ernst, a Republican who represents Iowa in the U.S. Senate, said that during her 26-year marriage with Gail Ernst, she was the victim of verbal and mental abuse and a physical assault after which a victim’s advocate wanted to take her to a hospital, she wrote in public records connected to their divorce.
“Gail has been very cruel,” she wrote. “This has been an extremely painful journey.”
In August, Ernst announced that she and Gail Ernst were divorcing. The divorce was finalized this month.
In an affidavit filed in October, Joni Ernst described a history of emotional abuse that included her husband belittling her and becoming angry when she achieved her goals. She was interviewed by then-candidate Donald Trump to run for vice president, but she turned him down, describing the move as not the right thing for her or her family, she said.
Ernst, 48, a military veteran from Red Oak, was the first woman in Iowa elected to either chamber of Congress. She defeated Democrat Bruce Braley in 2014 to win a six-year term in the Senate after coming out victorious in a five-way Republican primary for the nomination. She has said she will seek a second term in the Senate in 2020.
Ernst’s chief of staff, Lisa Goeas, declined to comment Tuesday. Joni Ernst’s attorney did not respond to a request to comment, and a person who answered the phone at Gail Ernst’s attorney’s office hung up when a reporter asked to speak to the lawyer. Other efforts to contact the Ernsts were unsuccessful.
The details of affidavits by Joni and Gail Ernst were first reported Monday by Cityview, an alternative newspaper in Des Moines. A judge on Tuesday sealed most of the records in the divorce case at the request of the Ernsts. Under Iowa law, divorce records are automatically made public when the divorce is finalized. But parties can request to keep some records private.
‘A very dark and troubling time’
Joni and Gail Ernst married after she graduated in 1992 from Iowa State University, according to court records. She wanted to pursue a master’s degree from the University of Iowa but followed him to Georgia, where he was assigned in the U.S. Army, she said.
The couple moved from place to place. As she worked various jobs, Ernst called herself the “epitome of an Army wife,” describing in court filings how she continued to drill for the Reserves and care for their daughter, who is now 19.
Throughout their marriage, Gail Ernst, 65, joked about their 17-year age difference, Joni Ernst wrote in her affidavit. He referred to her as his retirement plan, something she did not think was funny, she wrote.
When Gail retired from the Army in 2001, the couple moved back to Iowa. They have family members in the state and wanted to raise their own family here.
Joni Ernst deployed with the Iowa National Guard as a company commander from April 2003 to 2004 in Kuwait and Iraq. When she returned, she ran for and was elected Montgomery County auditor, serving from 2005 to 2011.
That was when, according to Joni Ernst’s affidavit, her husband had a “special friendship” with their daughter’s babysitter, who she said he spent time with even when their daughter was not there. She confronted him about it.
“We went through a very dark and troubling time in our marriage,” Ernst wrote. “I very nearly filed for divorce after a night that we argued, and it became physical.”
Joni Ernst said she fled to her mother’s house with her daughter in the middle of the night. Gail Ernst followed soon after, crying and apologizing, according to her affidavit.
The next day, a victim’s advocate at the courthouse performed an examination of Ernst’s throat and head, she said; the advocate wanted to take Ernst to the hospital, according to the court filing. Ernst declined, writing that she was “embarrassed and humiliated” and did not want people to know about what she described as an assault.
To repair their marriage, Gail Ernst agreed to attend counseling, Joni Ernst wrote. But, she said, he told her not to discuss the assault at the sessions.
“I stupidly agreed,” she said.
Joni Ernst said the two moved on, but their relationship was not the same.
As a U.S. senator, Joni Ernst has said domestic abuse should not be tolerated. When two ex-wives accused former White House aide Rob Porter of assault, Ernst told CNN the stories of abused men and women need to be heard and believed.
“Abuse is never OK,” she said in February 2018. “We need to send a very clear signal that it won’t be tolerated.”
The senator has also brought attention to sexual assault in the military. Having worked for a women’s crisis shelter while at Iowa State, Ernst was among a group of senators who called for a special congressional investigation into USA Gymnastics after national team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to decades in prison for sexually abusing gymnasts.
Ernsts accuse each other of affairs
On their 25th wedding anniversary in July, days after Gail Ernst told Joni he wanted a divorce, Joni opened his email and found something she said “devastated” her.
The senator found exchanges with someone she described as her ex-husband’s longtime girlfriend, according to her account. The two were planning their divorces and saying demeaning things about Joni Ernst and the woman’s husband, Ernst said.
Ernst wrote she began in a “downward spiral” of not eating or sleeping; she “rapidly lost” 17 pounds, which she said was about 13 percent of her weight. Her staff canceled two days of appointments because, she wrote, “I couldn’t function.”
In his response to her affidavit, Gail Ernst denied ever having an affair, writing: “I’ve never even danced with any other woman before I filed for divorce.” He made no mention of Ernst’s assault allegation in his response.
Gail Ernst accused Joni of having an affair with one of her soldiers while she was deployed as a company commander. He caught her secretly emailing him, he wrote.
“She admitted to the affair, said she was sorry and begged me not to say anything,” Gail Ernst wrote. But their daughter was 4 at the time, he wrote, so he “swallowed (his) pride and kept quiet.”
In the divorce papers, Gail Ernst, who retired in 2016, asked the court to award him $4,000 a month in temporary alimony, saying he grossed about $5,700 a month with disability while she earned $14,500. He also requested $10,000 in attorney fees.
In the end, neither was awarded alimony and each was responsible to pay attorney fees. In a financial statement, Joni Ernst estimated their net worth was about $930,000, while he calculated it was closer to $1,039,700.
Gail Ernst, who has two other children from a previous marriage, was awarded their residence in Red Oak, Iowa, as well as three lots in town. Joni Ernst, who has two other adult daughters, was awarded the condo in Washington, D.C.
The senator kept a 2013 Hyundai Elantra, a 2017 Ford Explorer and a 2009 Harley-Davidson. Her former husband kept a 1998 Chevy Corvette, a 2008 Dodge Ram and a 2006 Harley-Davidson, records show.
Joni: ‘He is doing everything he can to destroy me’
When Joni Ernst won her Senate seat, it was the first time in her marriage she earned more money than her husband, according to her affidavit.
Despite previous promises, Ernst said her then-husband was not supportive of her career and became mean when people brought up politics or asked her about work.
At one point, Gail Ernst said he would divorce Joni if she ran again for the Senate in 2020, though she wrote he “seeks to continue to gain from the success he so badly didn’t want me to have.” Gail Ernst denied the accusation in his response, calling it “an outright lie.”
When she announced she was running in 2020 in December, Ernst told reporters: “To anyone who would like to step up and enter into that race, I say: Bring it on.”
Gail Ernst wrote that he begged Joni to spend more time with him and their daughter, but her career was “all-consuming.” He accused her of dating other men in Washington and said other parents at their daughter’s school called him a single father.
Gail Ernst said he gave up on his goals so Joni Ernst could pursue her dreams, he wrote. Joni Ernst said Gail Ernst was now trying to derail her ambitions.
“Although Gail seems to think he can live off my salary for the rest of his life,” Joni Ernst wrote, “he is doing everything he can to destroy me and ruin my chance for re-election, which would end the gravy train he apparently plans to ride.”
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