Sean Parnell’s turbulent personal life, including allegations of abuse from his estranged wife, continues to spill into the open as the Senate hopeful appeared in court for a custody trial this week — disrupting the Pennsylvania Republican’s campaign and sowing doubt about his viability as a candidate.
The contentious custody dispute has revealed more details of the allegations Parnell’s wife, Laurie Snell, has leveled against him. She has alleged that Parnell choked her and injured their children. Parnell has denied those claims, which match allegations Snell made in 2018 during a hearing on a protection-from-abuse order she sought against him. Snell also testified Monday that Parnell had been unfaithful.
The allegations have shaken up next year’s Republican primary for the competitive Senate race in Pennsylvania.
The Parnell campaign declined to comment for this story.
In the last two weeks, the Parnell campaign — already endorsed by former President Donald Trump — has canceled two fundraising events, according to two people familiar with the events. One of those events, a virtual call last Friday pitched to donors as a forum for asking Parnell anything, was abruptly canceled that morning, just days after the first day of the custody trial.
In addition, some advisers and staff have said they are considering resigning from their roles with the campaign, those same two people ctold CNN.
Multiple Republicans told CNN that donors have grown increasingly concerned with Parnell’s bid since a rival campaign first revealed details about his ongoing messy divorce and custody cases, which have dragged on for years, in September.
“I think it’s safe to say the donors have all fled,” one Republican donor in Pennsylvania told CNN. “These are really difficult accusations for a lot of people to look past.”
Days after Trump endorsed Parnell on September 1, Philadelphia-area Republican Jeff Bartos published on a website run by his campaign documents showing that Snell was granted two temporary protection-from-abuse orders against him, in 2017 and 2018, both of which were later expunged.
A super PAC supporting Bartos used the documents in a campaign ad, bringing the legal fight into the open just weeks before the custody trial was to begin on November 1.
A volatile household
Court documents and testimony from both Parnell and Snell reveal a volatile household.
“We had a tumultuous relationship. We fought a lot,” Parnell said in his testimony Monday. “It just wasn’t a good relationship.”
In a 2018 court hearing, Snell told the court she was fearful of her husband, claiming he disparaged her, was physically violent toward her and took a video of her undressing, according to a transcript obtained by CNN. Parnell has denied recording her.
“He tried to choke me out. And I actually had to bite his arm to get away from him. He also tried to restrain me in rooms. He would hold me down — he would barricade himself in front of our door so I couldn’t leave the house. He would take my keys and my phone so I couldn’t leave,” Snell said in 2018. “These were, you know, pretty typical for Sean. This had happened at least a dozen times during our relationship.”
Those court documents and testimony reveal Snell’s concerns for the children as well. Snell testified that Parnell injured their children on two occasions — both of which Parnell denied.
During cross-examination Monday, Snell acknowledged that she still went on vacation with Parnell and the children following one of the incidents where Parnell allegedly hit one of their children.
At various points in her testimony, Snell said she had hoped Parnell would get help, and she previously held out hope they could coparent together. Snell told the court Parnell was a good dad “when he’s not angry” and added, “he’s a great father in public.”
In court, Parnell and his attorney aimed to rebut Snell’s allegations of violence and raise questions about her motives.
At one point during Parnell’s 2020 House race, Snell told Parnell that if he gave her the house and paid the mortgage for years to come, “You have my full support. I’ll even door knock for you,” according to messages read in court.
Parnell, in his sworn testimony, denied that he ever physically abused, choked, hit or pinned down his wife. He also denied ever striking his children in anger. He noted that he and Snell currently share custody of their children, though the two are currently battling for primary custody of the children.
“I believe that Laurie’s anger and resentment towards me is clouding her judgment,” Parnell said.
Snell also testified Monday that Parnell had a nine-month affair with his now-girlfriend while married to Snell. Snell described feeling uncomfortable around the girlfriend, who now lives with Parnell, and claimed that the woman has videotaped Snell in public. On the stand Tuesday, the girlfriend denied videotaping Snell.
Parnell did not directly address the allegation of infidelity. He testified that he and his girlfriend began dating when he and Snell had legally separated, but he was not questioned about whether they had a prior relationship before he and Snell had separated in 2018. Asked about the extramarital affair on Tuesday, the girlfriend said she believed Parnell and Snell were separated at the time.
Snell said she has shied away from dating. She said Parnell has at times tracked the cars parked outside her home and sent Snell “harassing” text messages.
“I’ve kind of been frightened away from even dating anyone at this point,” Snell said.
“Enjoy your little f— buddy. Go to hell,” Parnell said in one text message, which was read in court. In others, he disparaged her as “erratic” and “evil.”
At various points in court Monday, Judge James Arner aimed to steer the parties back to questions about the children’s wellbeing.
“I have a very clear picture that Ms. Snell and Mr. Parnell don’t get along,” Arner said.
Positioned for a Senate run
A retired Army Ranger and combat veteran with a Purple Heart, Parnell has been a prominent figure in conservative media after publishing his 2012 memoir about his Afghanistan War experience. He ran unsuccessfully for a congressional seat outside of Pittsburgh in 2020 and spoke that year at the Republican National Convention.
Despite losing his House race, Parnell’s frequent appearances on Fox News and his close friendship with the Trump family, particularly with Donald Trump Jr., positioned him to run for the Senate once Republican Sen. Pat Toomey announced his retirement.
Pennsylvania Republicans were not surprised when the former President announced his endorsement in September, though it’s unclear whether Trump and his political team were aware of the legal fight at the time. When asked by CNN last month, Taylor Budowich, a spokesman for Trump, did not answer directly, though he claimed that Parnell, who Trump Jr. had endorsed months earlier, received the endorsement after “careful consideration.”
For the moment, that endorsement stands. Budowich confirmed to CNN that the former President is scheduled to host a fundraiser for Parnell at Mar-a-Lago in January.
Despite Trump’s confidence in Parnell, other Pennsylvania Republicans are looking to his GOP rivals like Bartos and Carla Sands, Trump’s former ambassador to Denmark, who has poured significant personal resources into her campaign.
In addition, Pennsylvania native David McCormick, a hedge fund manager and veteran of the George W. Bush administration, is also considering entering the race
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