Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer Tuesday denied accusations that he physically assaulted a college girlfriend, accusing the newspaper that printed them of "Rolling Stone-style" journalism and pledging that his campaign will go on.
The allegations, reported in The Courier-Journal Monday night — two weeks before the Republican gubernatorial primary — were made by Marilyn Thomas of New York City, who said in a letter to the Louisville newspaper that Comer was physically and mentally abusive to her when they dated while students at Western Kentucky University in the early 1990s.
Comer assailed The Courier-Journal in an afternoon news conference in downtown Lexington as he and his wife, TJ Comer, denied the allegations.
"As a devoted husband and a proud father of a son and two daughters, the crime of domestic violence sickens me," Comer said. "The notion that I could commit such a horrific offense is simply beyond any semblance of reason."
Comer said the Courier's report was "filled with inconsistencies, implausible scenarios and flat-out lies." He said he is consulting with his legal team about pursuing action against the newspaper and other parties.
The Herald-Leader has not seen the letter sent to the Louisville newspaper.
The Courier-Journal reported that the letter does not offer specific details of the alleged physical abuse, other than to say Comer struck the woman.
The letter also said Comer accompanied Thomas to a Louisville abortion clinic in 1991, the newspaper said.
When the Herald-Leader asked TJ Comer if James Comer had ever assaulted her or if she believed the accusations, she said: "Absolutely not."
"Jamie and I grew up together," she said. "We're from the same hometown (Tompkinsville), and if you know anything about small towns, I knew everything about Jamie Comer and I still do. And I married him almost 12 years ago, and I would do the same thing today."
In an interview with the Herald-Leader after the news conference, Comer said he thinks that Republican rival Hal Heiner's campaign is behind the allegations, arguing that "KC and Scott Crosbie got caught red-handed ... for doing this illegal and unethical activity."
KC Crosbie is running for lieutenant governor on Heiner's ticket. Scott Crosbie is her husband.
"I think this has been a very dirty campaign," Comer said. "Let me be very clear. I think there are people in his campaign that are behind this. Yes, I do."
Comer said he thinks the story will "backfire incredibly" on the Heiner campaign.
Doug Alexander, a spokesman for the Heiner campaign, said the campaign had "no involvement."
Heiner apologized to Comer last week after the Herald-Leader obtained emails showing that Scott Crosbie had been in contact with Lexington blogger Michael Adams, who had accused Comer of assaulting Comer's college girlfriend.
Adams told the Herald-Leader last week that he had met in person with Scott Crosbie at a Lexington O'Charley's.
Heiner, in a statement to the Herald-Leader last week, called Adams' efforts to discredit Comer "the worst type of politics."
"It is undignified and unChristian and not the type of campaign I am running," Heiner said.
Comer said at his news conference that he is "considering legal action against those who have been shopping these lies as well as The Courier-Journal for publishing them."
Comer told the Herald-Leader that on Tuesday he wrote a personal check to the law firm of Frost, Brown, Todd, and he will rely on their advice as he weighs his legal options.
"I've invested money in this race that I honestly don't have because I believe in Kentucky, I believe in the people of Kentucky and I believe I can lead this state where we need to go," he said.
At the news conference, Comer produced a book that he said Thomas gave him when they met in the restaurant area of the Marriott Marquis in New York in 2001.
The book, Maverick, was written by former U.S. Sen. Lowell Weicker, R-Conn., and it contains a personalized inscription to Comer, which he read out loud at the news conference.
"James — With highest regards and admiration for your public service. Warmest regards, Lowell Weicker. PS I'm trying to get Marilyn out of my house and back to Kentucky so she can vote for you."
Comer said "that was the last time I saw Marilyn Thomas. I thanked her for the gift."
"Clearly this was 10 years after we had ended our relationship. Marilyn felt comfortable seeking me out for a visit and delivered me a very kind gift, one I've kept to this day," he said. "Today, more than 20 years after we ended our relationship, these bizarre and untrue allegations have emerged just two weeks before the primary election."
Comer disclosed in the news conference — and later showed the Herald-Leader — new internal polling that showed him with a 1-point lead over Heiner.
Comer said that he was not surprised by what he called false accusations of abuse, given that Adams had been pushing that story for the better part of a year.
Comer did say that the allegation he was involved in an abortion with Thomas "was a new one that caught us all off-guard."
"That came out of left field," Comer said. "We've all been seeing these blogs that said I knocked her teeth out or I broke her jaw or I didn't graduate from college, there was a disciplinary file, there was a police record."
Those blogs have resulted in a grand jury investigation after Comer's running mate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, through an attorney called the commonwealth's attorney with emails from Adams that McDaniel said represented threats against his daughters, ages 6 and 11.
McDaniel said during a debate on KET Monday night that he was "horribly disappointed" and "appalled" by the Heiner campaign's involvement with Adams.
When asked what possible motivation Thomas might have for concocting such a story, Comer said he has "no idea."
"I think this is something the grand jury can investigate, and I hope they do," Comer said. "And I fully intend to cooperate with the grand jury."
In the interview, Comer did express some regret that his attorney had questioned Thomas' mental state when talking with The Courier-Journal.
"I don't think that was a wise choice of words," he said. "The attorney told me he was making arguments as to why they should do a little more investigation before they printed a story that had such serious consequences. He didn't know that that was going to be an on-the-record statement."
When the Herald-Leader asked Comer about a quote from Thomas' mother in the Courier-Journal story, alleging that he called their house in 1991 and threatened to kill Thomas, Comer said he has "no idea why they would've said that."
Comer said he saw Thomas' parents at a pork producers' conference two years ago, and that "her mom and dad came up to me and she hugged me and said how proud they are of me.
"I've never called any woman and threatened them," he said.
Comer said in the interview that the last day has been hard on his family, calling the allegations "embarrassing."
"I hate it for my 11-year-old daughter who's watching all this on TV, but I felt like we're going to go out there, we're going to fight back, I'm going to defend myself, I'm going to tell the truth and hope that the voters see that I'm sincere," he said.
"It's been hard on TJ. Our two little kids don't know yet. You know you worry. Kids spend the night with other kids. Are they not going to want to come to our house to spend the night? Things like that I worry about."
But Comer said he plans to fight and he plans to win the primary, noting that "it's going to be a rough election."
"You expect low blows but this is one for the record books," he said.
"This is one they'll talk about a century from today."