SANTA ANA — 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."