More charges fly of erratic behavior by Merrill Cook

Published: Thursday, Nov. 19 1998 12:00 a.m. MST

Meltdown is continuing in the office of Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, with more bizarre charges and counter-charges between him and former top aides.

The aides say he has had bouts of acting depressed or almost delusional for years; had a bout after the election where he yelled he was going to lose the election, which he had already won; and he tried to fire his entire staff the day after winning but relented under party pressure.Cook's spokeswoman denies it.

Such stories come from e-mails that were sent to other aides by Janet Jenson, who resigned this month as Cook's chief of staff. Copies were sent to the news media.

Jenson contacted the Deseret News and said she indeed wrote the e-mails describing some of Cook's unusual behavior - but said she was disappointed others had apparently sent them to the press.

Jenson said she decided to speak about them after Cook repeatedly denied such actions to the press and attacked her and others as "disgruntled employees" spreading false stories.

Among the incidents, she said, was that the morning after Cook won the election, she was called in Utah by aides in Washington.

"I was told that he had fired all of them (the staff), and he wanted a plane reservation to come to Washington that afternoon and do staff reconstruction," Jenson said.

She said she called state Republican Party Executive Director Spencer Stokes and Ted Stewart, chief of staff to Gov. Mike Leavitt, about the mass firing and to seek help.

"The national party intervened because he had called the national party and asked it to help him hire a new staff by Friday morning. They told him he can't do a wholesale firing of staff without attracting bad publicity," she said.

"He went ahead and fired Rob (Jeppsen, his state director) anyway on Sunday. I resigned in protest by Sunday afternoon," she said.

Marianne Funk, Cook's press secretary, disputed that version of events. She said the entire staff had not been fired and rehired. But she said Cook had long planned some staff reorganization - including firing Jeppsen and maybe reassigning Jenson. She said Cook asked Jenson the Thursday after the election to either accept another assignment or consider leaving.

Funk said the National Republican Congressional Committee, an arm of the national party that helps elect House members, also referred a consultant to Cook who told him that some staff reorganization after elections is normal and expected.

Funk also said the Washington staff was upset and thought it was about to be fired, but she blames that on e-mails that Jenson sent to them.

One e-mail said, "Merrill has taken up permanent residence in wacko land, and we are all in serious jeopardy."

Another warned staff, "If he asks you to fax his underwear to the speaker's office, please just do it."

Another e-mail by Jenson described a bizarre event after the election. "He screamed and swore at me . . . that I didn't understand that he had to win this thing and that I was the reason he couldn't win this, he just had to win this, and on and on," the e-mail said.

The e-mail continued with Jenson writing, "I told him that he's already won it by double digits and maybe he should get some sleep or go on a vacation or something."

Jenson said similar events have happened off and on for years but increased in frequency and intensity toward the end of this year's campaign as pressure built.

"What causes that has been a subject of staff debate for a year and a half, whether it is high blood pressure, diabetes or some other chemical imbalance," she said. She adds Cook becomes angry whenever anyone brings it up.

Jeppsen earlier made similar statements about Cook, as did his first chief of staff, David Irvine.

Funk said in response, "I think the congressman has sometimes without question been irritable and even hot tempered. But Miss Jenson's characterizations of his moods is like the pot calling the kettle black. Her voice has been raised in that office more than anyone else's, mostly with the congressman. They fought a great deal."

She added that Cook is fine, realizes very well that he won the election and is saddened by the comments of his former staff.

Meanwhile, another staffer, Georgia Peterson, announced she is resigning in protest of the dismissals of Jenson and Jeppsen.

Jenson issued a written statement to the press attacking Funk and another aide for "disparaging me and others as disgruntled."

Jenson wrote, "This saddens me because I have more than once stood up to Merrill for their sakes and refused to fire them when he wanted me to. But they have mortgages and car payments, and I understand that they feel they must say anything to ingratiate themselves with Mr. Cook in order to keep their jobs."

Funk dismissed that, and said, "I'm disappointed she is not only attacking the integrity of the congressman but also the remaining staff."

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS