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GOP Senate hopeful Sean Parnell testified he ‘never’ abused his estranged wife and children

“Did you ever choke your wife?” Parnell’s attorney asked during a custody hearing. “Never,” came his reply.

Republican Senate candidate Sean Parnell, right, walks to a courtroom with his girlfriend Monday at the Butler County Courthouse for the second day of his child custody trial. Under oath he flatly denied his estranged wife's claims of abuse. (Andrew Rush/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
Republican Senate candidate Sean Parnell, right, walks to a courtroom with his girlfriend Monday at the Butler County Courthouse for the second day of his child custody trial. Under oath he flatly denied his estranged wife's claims of abuse. (Andrew Rush/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)Read moreAndrew Rush / AP

BUTLER, Pa. — Senate candidate Sean Parnell on Monday flatly denied his wife’s most devastating accusations of abuse, testifying under oath that he never choked her or pinned her down, never left her on the side of the road or told her to get an abortion and did not violently strike their children.

“Did you ever choke your wife?” Parnell’s attorney asked during a custody hearing.

“Never,” Parnell said. He gave similarly unequivocal answers to questions about other allegations raised by his estranged wife, Laurie Snell. “It just wasn’t a good relationship,” he said.

Asked if he ever got “physical” with his wife, Parnell answered: “Never.”

Parnell’s attorney sought to undercut Snell’s credibility a week after she leveled searing abuse accusations — also under oath — as the couple struggle for primary custody of their three children and as Parnell, seen by some as the Republican front-runner, tries to keep his campaign for Senate viable.

His lawyer noted that Snell filed at least two court filings after the alleged abuse incidents without mentioning them. One included 17 paragraphs explaining her grievances in their custody fight, but “no allegations whatsoever” of violence and “not one allegation of a safety concern for the children,” said Parnell’s attorney, Kristen Batson Eberle.

The testimony Monday, including cross-examination of Snell and direct questioning of Parnell for the first time, marked the candidate’s first chance to formally rebut his wife’s accusations in court. They came after a week in which a cloud gathered over his political future, and as he, his campaign, and his lawyers sought to disprove or discredit the accusations against him.

Last week Snell laid out a tearful account of Parnell choking her, pinning her down, and hurling rage-filled insults at her during their tumultuous marriage, including calling her “a whore.” She also accused Parnell of hitting and screaming at their children, aged 8 to 12.

Eberle noted Monday that the two allegations of violence against the couple’s children had previously been introduced in court in 2018, when Snell sought a protective order against Parnell. A judge, however, denied that request for protection, Eberle said.

The case has drawn national attention given the importance of Pennsylvania’s Senate race, one of a handful likely to decide control of the chamber next year. Parnell has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, boosting his standing in the GOP primary. Despite the accusations, Trump has signaled his firm backing for Parnell, announcing a January fund-raiser for the candidate at his Mar-a-Lago resort, the newsletter Punchbowl News reported on Friday.

Parnell testified Monday in a tightly packed courtroom, wearing jeans and a plaid, button-down shirt with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. It was “a very tough week for my family,” said the decorated Army veteran, professional public speaker, and conservative commentator. He did not face a cross-examination and so was not challenged Monday on his account.

He denied Snell’s accusation that he slapped one of their kids hard enough to leave welts on his back — saying a photo of a child’s bruised back that Snell’s lawyer offered as proof was not his son’s back. He said she “made up” another claim about him punching a closet so hard that it swung into the face of one of their children and left a bruise. Parnell testified that the child got startled and bumped his own head on the door, and that Parnell quickly hugged him and apologized.

“Laurie wasn’t even there,” Parnell said.

His lawyer also pointed to messages from Snell in 2019, after the alleged abuse, in which she pledged to support Parnell’s 2020 run for U.S. House and knock on doors for him if he agreed to keep paying the mortgage for the home they previously shared ― and where Snell now lives — until the children were out of school.

“This was a touchy time, but yes, that’s what I said,” Snell testified. Her lawyer later accused Parnell’s team of “cherry-picking” messages within a lengthy exchange.

Parnell’s lawyer also pointed out that after the alleged incidents with the children, Snell texted Parnell saying he was a “good father.” She testified Monday that he loves the children.

Snell said she wanted the children to have their father in their lives, and that “he’s a great father in public.” She added that after her texts praising Parnell her attitude changed for the worse when he “ransacked” their marital home in a fury. Parnell’s lawyer said he was only gathering his belongings.

Another point of contention was a vacation the family took a day after one of the incidents in which she accused Parnell of harming one of their children. “We went to Florida together as a family and it was an awesome time,” Parnell said.

His team pointed to that as evidence that Snell’s account wasn’t true.

Domestic abuse experts say it not uncommon for women to stay connected with abusers even after episodes of violence.

Snell on Monday described insulting and harassing texts she said Parnell sent her when he suspected her of dating other people after their separation — despite his having a nine-month affair during their marriage.

“I’ve kind of been frightened away from even dating someone,” Snell testified.

When she volunteered at a local fire department, following in her father’s footsteps, Parnell told her “the only women who are firefighters either want to hook-up or are lesbians,” she testified.

In other texts, he called her “a liar and a manipulative sociopath” and “evil,” according to evidence submitted by her attorney. Snell said insults like that happened often.

Other points of contention Monday focused on seemingly more minor incidents — and more common disputes over custody time, school arrangements, and activities. Parnell’s lawyer homed in on one instance in which Snell admitted she pinched one of her son’s arms as punishment. Parnell said the boy was crying and had a bruise.

And Eberle questioned Snell’s honesty over a previous deposition in which Snell said she’d been offered a job in 2019 by the campaign of U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, the Democrat who Parnell challenged (and who is now also running for Senate). Snell acknowledged that, in fact, the job offer came from a group supporting Lamb, not Lamb’s campaign. Snell acknowledged her original testimony on that subject was “a lie.”

» READ MORE: Pa. Senate candidate Sean Parnell’s wife testified that he choked her and hit their children

Snell is seeking primary custody of the couple’s children amid a contentious divorce. She made her case on the opening day of the trial last week and for the first half of Monday.

Parnell last week sharply denied Snell’s testimony, saying it included “complete fabrications” and “flat-out lies.” But he did not have an opportunity to answer the claims in court, or question her account, until Monday.

“I have never raised a hand in anger towards my wife or any of our three children,” Parnell said in a statement last week.

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

Parnell was scheduled to continue testifying Tuesday, the last day of scheduled proceedings for the trial. It was unclear how soon Senior Judge James Arner might rule.

Questions about Parnell’s conduct have swirled since a Republican opponent, Jeff Bartos, pointed to documents showing that Snell obtained temporary protection from abuse orders against Parnell in 2017 and 2018.

Neither, however, was made permanent and both were expunged — without Snell’s objection, she acknowledged under cross examination Monday. Until her testimony last week, there had been no public information about her allegations.