Domestic abuse claims take center stage as Puzder’s hearing looms

A court will consider opening his divorce records on Tuesday.

In this Nov. 19, 2016 file photo, President-elect Donald Trump walks Labor Secretary-designate Andy Puzder from Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
In this Nov. 19, 2016 file photo, President-elect Donald Trump walks Labor Secretary-designate Andy Puzder from Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Two days before the Senate will consider the nomination of Andy Puzder to lead the U.S. Department of Labor, a Missouri court will consider making public his divorce records in which his ex-wife accused him of assault.

On Tuesday, the court will consider a request by the Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit ethics organization, to reopen Puzder’s divorce records, which were publicly available until the day after President Trump nominated him for Labor Secretary.

According to court filings, Puzder’s ex-wife Lisa Fierstein (previously Lisa Henning) accused him of physically assault, including “striking her violently about the face, chest, back, shoulders, and neck, without provocation or cause.” In a 1988 petition for $350,000 in damages, she says she suffered severe and permanent injuries, including bruises and contusions, strained and swollen muscles, and ruptured and bulging discs.

She also claimed that Puzder punched her in the car on the way home from a dinner in 1985 and that the following year, he unplugged the phone after she called police during a physical altercation.

In 1990, Fierstein appeared in disguise on an episode of Oprah to talk about her abuse in an episode titled “High-Class Battered Women.” Politico first reported on her appearance last month and then reported this week that Oprah’s network gave a tape of the episode to the U.S. Senate, where it has been viewed by members of both parties.

“I’ve arranged for senators on the committee to see that… I thought that was a reasonable request. No reason not to see it,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the chairman of the committee that will hold Puzder’s hearing, told Politico. “That happened 27 years ago. His former wife has said it was all not true. She has reiterated that in a heartfelt letter to members of the committee and has been willing to talk to members of the committee so I don’t think that’s an issue.”

Fierstein first retracted her claims of abuse as part of a child custody agreement in 1990. She has repeated her retraction a number of times, including in a letter to the Senate HELP Committee this year.

“I was hesitant, but encouraged by friends and became caught up in the notion of a free trip to Chicago and being a champion of women and women’s issues,” Fierstein wrote about going on Oprah. “I regret my decision to appear on that show.”

She also claimed that she originally filed charges in 1988 because of bad advice from an attorney with a political “vendetta.”

Fierstein’s retraction is not unusual for a victim of domestic abuse, given the high rates of women who keep their abuse secret and cover up their abuser’s actions. Only one third of assault victims seek medical treatment, and according to the National Violence Against Women Survey, just 25 percent of physical assaults perpetrated against women are reported to the police annually.

For his part, Puzder has denied the allegations, saying that he and his wife would get into disagreements but “there was no physical abuse at any point in time.”

But the lawyer who represented Feirstein has said the allegations were “credible and believable” when they were filed in the 1980s, and that he did not coerce her into filing claims.

Daniel Stevens, executive director of Campaign for Accountability, said in a statement earlier this month that the domestic abuse allegations are important for the Senate to consider before Puzder is confirmed.

“President Trump has nominated Mr. Puzder to head the Department of Labor, where he would oversee efforts to combat workplace harassment and violence,” Stevens said. Before the United States Senate votes on whether Mr. Puzder is qualified to lead an agency charged with protecting the safety of American workers — including millions of women — the public is entitled to full information about Mr. Puzder’s record.”

Puzder is currently the CEO of the company that operates Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., restaurant chains that are frequently accused of labor violations. According to a recent report, mistreatment of women is endemic to his companies: a study found that two-thirds of women who work for his companies say they’ve been sexually harassed.

As the Senate prepares for his confirmation hearing on Thursday, at least four Republicans have expressed their hesitation about having Puzder lead the Labor Department.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said Monday that she hasn’t made up her mind on how she will vote, and told the reporters that she has reviewed footage of Fierstein on Oprah.

“I am reviewing the other information that has come to light and I’m sure all of this will be explored thoroughly,” she said about the allegations of abuse.

UPDATE: A Missouri judge on Tuesday ordered the release of some documents related to Puzder’s divorce that had not been publicly available.

The documents now available provide more details about the alleged abuse. Shortly before the 1988 divorce proceedings, Feirstein filed a claim against Puzder under Missouri’s Adult Abuse Act relating to assault and battery in May 1986.

“In her petition for dissolution of marriage, [Feirstein] again alluded to the purported assault and battery of May 22, 1986, alleging that [Puzder] had ‘behaved in such a way that [she] could not reasonably be expected to live with him,’” one filing said.

Stevens, the head of the watchdog organization seeking to make the documents public, said his group is still reviewing the records and pushing for the court to release additional documents.

“The disturbing, violent conduct detailed in the records could have violated Missouri criminal law,” he said. “Campaign for Accountability has asked the judge to unseal all remaining records so that the Senate and the American people are able to make an informed decision as to whether Mr. Puzder is fit to serve in the high office to which he has been nominated. We hope that the sum total of this information is made available in the next 48 hours.”