Sen. Joni Ernst says she was in an abusive marriage

Civic Skinny


Sen. Joni Ernst says her now-ex-husband physically and emotionally abused her, had a long-time girlfriend while they were married, did not support her career and then sought alimony when they filed for divorce, according to documents on file in the Iowa District Court for Montgomery County.

Joni Ernst was auditor of Montgomery County from 2005 to 2011, and during that time her husband, Gail Ernst, “had a special friendship” with their daughter’s baby-sitter, the court documents say.

“He began hanging out at the babysitter’s house, even when [their daughter] wasn’t there. I confronted him about the situation, and we went through a very dark and troubling time in our marriage. I very nearly filed for divorce after a night that we argued, and it became physical. I fled the house (with their daughter) and went to my mother’s house in the middle of the night.”

The next morning, according to an affidavit from the Iowa Republican in the file, “I went to work and met with our Victim’s Advocate…at her office in the courthouse. She did a quick exam of my throat and head and wanted to take me to the hospital. I declined because I was embarrassed and humiliated and didn’t want anyone to know about the assault.

“Gail agreed to go to counseling at Offutt Air Force Base to repair our marriage, but he told me not to bring up the assault in our counseling sessions. I stupidly agreed. We moved on, although things have never really been the same.”

Things got worse on their 25th wedding anniversary last July. She opened his Hotmail account and “what I found devastated me.” Her affidavit says: “There were e-mails in his account from a long-time girlfriend, Carla Rickert, and they were planning their respective divorces. There were disgusting sexual discussions, sharing of financials, scheming, demeaning talk about me and Carla’s husband, discussions about where they would live, house floor plans, etc. I started a downward spiral of not sleeping and eating, and I rapidly lost 17 pounds, about 13% of my body weight. My staff had to cancel two days of my appointments because I couldn’t function.”

In response, Gail Ernst said he had never had an affair, accused her of having an affair while she was deployed in the military, alleged she had “dated other men while in D.C.,” said she had been “neither a mother nor spouse” in recent years, said he had “given up all my aspirations and goals to be a good dad and husband so Joni could pursue her dreams.”

His affidavit also says she hacked into his email account and “sent e-mails to another person using my email account as if she were me.”


The day Cityview published details of the divorce documents, Joni Ernst’s lawyer, Matt McDermott of the Belin law firm in Des Moines, filed an “emergency motion to seal the record.” The next morning, Tuesday Jan. 22, the motion was granted, and the record was sealed by District Judge James. S. Heckerman.

Gail Ernst filed for divorce on Aug. 27 of last year. The petition asked that Joni Ernst pay alimony and pay his legal fees. The divorce was granted on Jan. 3 of this year. There was no alimony, each agreed to pay his or her own legal fees, and Gail Ernst was ordered to pay the court fees.

A stipulation filed by the two of them says they were married twice — on Oct. 1, 1992, in Savannah, Ga., and again in Stanton, on July 24 of 1993. At the time of the marriage, he was 39-years-old and divorced with two daughters. She was 22. As they grew older and she won well-paying jobs in politics, he would refer to her as “my retirement plan,” according to the divorce papers. “I didn’t think it was funny and didn’t appreciate the reference,” she said.

They had met while she was a student at Iowa State. Her name was Joni Culver, and she was in the Reserve Officers Training Corps. He was a career Army man who retired in 2001 after serving for 28 years. She joined the Army after graduation and served in the Iraq War. After serving as Montgomery County auditor, she was elected in 2010 to the Iowa Senate from Red Oak. She was elected to the United States Senate in 2014, beating Democrat Bruce Braley after Tom Harkin announced he was retiring.

Court documents say the Ernsts had a combined net worth of $932,000 (her figure) or $1,039,000 (his figure).

In the divorce, she got the condo in Washington, and he got most of the property in Red Oak. He got the Tempur-Pedic bed, and she got the piano. She got the 2013 Hyundai and the 2017 Explorer, and he got the 1998 Corvette and the 2008 Ram. They each got a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and she got her guns while he got his.

According to an article last year by Carroll newspaperman Doug Burns, Joni Ernst is “a fierce advocate for justice for victims of sexual assault in the military as well as improved workplace environments for women in general.” He wrote that “she gives ‘kudos’ to survivors of sexual abuse or harassment.” On the other hand, she has introduced a bill in the United States Senate to prevent any federal funds from going to Planned Parenthood and is a vigorous foe of the organization, a leader in the fight against domestic violence.