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Republican Senate candidate Sean Parnell is seeking a gag order against his wife and her attorney as their dispute spills into the campaign

Republican Senate candidate Sean Parnell said he's trying to protect his children from public scrutiny and harm, but his wife argues he's seeking to shield his own reputation as he runs for office.

In this file photo from Sept. 22, 2020, Sean Parnell walks through a crowd gathered at a campaign rally for then-President Donald Trump at the Pittsburgh International Airport.
In this file photo from Sept. 22, 2020, Sean Parnell walks through a crowd gathered at a campaign rally for then-President Donald Trump at the Pittsburgh International Airport.Read moreKeith Srakocic / AP

Republican Senate candidate Sean Parnell has asked a judge to seal records in his ongoing custody case and to ban his wife and her attorney from talking publicly about past protection-from-abuse orders against him — matters that have stirred political attacks and media scrutiny.

A judge in the case, filed in Butler County, heard arguments on the requests Tuesday morning. Parnell, asking for a seal on the case for a second time, argued that he was trying to protect his three children from media prying and being exposed to harmful information about their parents’ dispute.

“I signed up to run for office,” he said during the hearing. “My kids did not.”

An attorney for his wife, Laurie Parnell, said the candidate is trying to protect himself and his political ambitions. She noted that in 2019 he sought permission to use the children’s photos on social media, filing a motion that cited a brand strategist’s advice to do so “in order to harness the potential of his customer base, secure new followers,” and improve sales of his books. Parnell’s campaign website also prominently features photos of him with his children.

”He is once again using the children as an excuse to try to protect his true character and actions from being shown to the public,” his wife’s attorney wrote in a filing.

She added that Parnell’s campaign has released some court documents to reporters to rebut political attacks about the protective orders. Laurie Parnell opposes the seal and gag order.

Two media outlets, The Inquirer and the Tribune-Review, of Pittsburgh, also filed motions opposing the court seal. The Tribune-Review also sought to unseal some documents filed previously in the custody matter, potentially including a psychological evaluation of Sean Parnell.

The Clarion County judge brought in to oversee the case, James Arner, did not rule Tuesday. He repeatedly asked both parties for evidence of what harm would come to the children if the custody hearing remains public.

If approved, Parnell’s request would seal contentious proceedings, so far conducted in public, involving one of the Republican front-runners in Pennsylvania’s nationally watched U.S. Senate campaign. It would also prevent his wife from publicly discussing an issue that has raised concern around his candidacy.

Parnell, a decorated former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, unsuccessfully ran for Congress outside Pittsburgh in 2020 and recently secured a coveted endorsement from former President Donald Trump in his bid for the Senate. The Pennsylvania race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is one of a handful that could decide control of the chamber.

» READ MORE: Bombshell or backlash? The nasty turn in Pa.’s GOP Senate primary leaves questions for both Jeff Bartos and Sean Parnell.

Parnell told the judge Tuesday that he worried about personal information and psychological evaluations of his children becoming public, and spreading through their school and community. He said he would also agree to abide by a gag order around the custody dispute and the protection-from-abuse orders.

Asked to provide an example of news reports about their children, Sean Parnell struggled to come up with an example.

Laurie Parnell said she would agree to sealing personal information involving their children but not regarding the parents. She said that given existing laws to protect the children’s identities and personal information, “I don’t believe that any additional restrictions should be put on this custody case.”

Arner, the judge, previously denied Parnell’s July request to seal the trial and docket, though he did seal both parents’ pretrial narrative statements.

Parnell renewed his request for a seal and added a motion for a gag order against Laurie Parnell and her lawyer last month. That came after The Inquirer reported that a Republican rival, Jeff Bartos, claimed the two temporary protection-from-abuse orders issued against Parnell in 2017 and 2018 made him “unelectable.”

There’s little public information about what behavior led to those orders, which were short-lived and eventually dismissed and expunged.

Parnell called Bartos a “desperate liar” and called on him to drop out of the race.

Some Republicans, including Treasurer Stacy Garrity, a Bartos supporter, have since called on Parnell to “fully” explain the incidents. Bartos’ campaign manager attended the Zoom hearing on Tuesday.

» READ MORE: Sean Parnell’s wife sought protective orders against him. Pa. Senate race rival Jeff Bartos says that makes him ‘unelectable.’

In its bid to intervene in the case, a lawyer for The Inquirer wrote that Parnell’s conduct was “of significant interest” to the public as he seeks a Senate seat. An attorney for the Tribune-Review argued in its filing that domestic court proceedings are historically open to the press and public.

Noting that his July request came shortly after Parnell launched his Senate campaign, the lawyer wrote that Parnell’s motions ”by their timing and content, seem to be tailored for protection of his own political ambition.”

Tuesday’s hearing briefly focused on psychological evaluations of the parents and children that are a disputed part of the custody fight. Parnell’s attorneys have sought to keep his evaluation confidential and have in the past accused Laurie Parnell of purposely adding it to the public court docket, before it was sealed.

Knowledge of the protective orders has circulated in political and media circles since Parnell’s 2020 campaign for U.S. House, but they weren’t publicly reported until Bartos made them the centerpiece of his attack in their primary contest.

Questioning at the hearing Tuesday revealed that one Pittsburgh TV station had been preparing a story on the couple’s dispute in 2020 but changed course after getting a joint statement from Sean and Laurie Parnell.

But when Bartos launched his missive this year, Laurie Parnell declined to join in a statement with Sean. Instead, lawyers for both parents accused the other of spreading false information to reporters.