Gayle Sweeney, about to confront former U.S. Rep. John Sweeney in a divorce case, claims her husband was often verbally abusive and at times physically abused her during their marriage.
She now concedes that a statement she made on the eve of last fall's election denying marital abuse was "coerced."
Mrs. Sweeney, who is staying with friends at locations she wants to keep secret, approached the Times Union on Friday and asked to have her story told. She said she was fearful for her life.
"I am never alone, I'm always with other people. I think with all the connections involved -- John Sweeney has connections, money and power -- I want protection," Gayle Sweeney said.
Mrs. Sweeney, 36, said she wanted to publicly counter what she expects to be her husband's divorce claim of mental cruelty. The former four-term congressman filed forms July 11 with the Saratoga County clerk to initiate the divorce.
Contacted Saturday, John Sweeney flatly denied any physical abuse of his wife.
"Out of respect for the legal proceedings, and the judge's preference, I will not comment on any of the issues involved with my marriage," Sweeney said in a written statement he delivered in person to the newspaper. "I do however feel compelled to explicitly state that I never at any time engaged in abuse and violence."
Sweeney's first wife, Betty Sweeney, of Schaghticoke, stood up for her former husband in a telephone interview Saturday.
"I've known (John) all these years and I never observed any kind of behavior like that towards me or anybody else," said Betty Sweeney, who had three children with him.
Over the last month, Gayle Sweeney said, both she and her husband sensed a breakup coming after a roller-coaster relationship marked by alcohol-induced spats. Sweeney recently sought an order of protection against his wife, and ordered her to leave their home.
Sweeney said he is not commenting, on the advice of his matrimonial attorney, Karen Gazda. A hearing in the divorce case is set for Monday in Fulton County. Mrs. Sweeney is contesting the action. Her attorney is Michael Freedman.
Sweeney, 51, lost his seat in Congress last November to Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand.
Gayle and John Sweeney first met in 1996 at Broadway Joe's, a bar on South Pearl Street. Mrs. Sweeney was tending bar when Sweeney came in with Mayor Jerry Jennings, she recalled. She and Sweeney were in other relationships and didn't begin dating until 2001, when they went to Tavern at Sterup Square in Raymertown.
"I was just in awe of him," said Gayle Sweeney. "And we just fell in love." Within months, they moved in together and they married three years later. "He was very charismatic." (Sweeney dropped her birth name, Gaia, in the sixth grade for the more traditional Gayle.)
Mrs. Sweeney had no prior experience in politics or life in Washington, D.C., but quickly learned the ropes. Her husband hired her as a fundraising consultant, paying her a 10 percent commission on the money she brought in. Critics questioned whether Rep. Sweeney was simply laundering campaign funds for personal use.