Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement director John M. Fedders was described yesterday as a "manic depressive" by a Montgomery County judge who has heard testimony that Fedders repeatedly beat his wife and ran up huge debts while trying to live the life of a wealthy lawyer on a government salary.
Fedders, 43, was granted a three-month delay in divorce proceedings in Montgomery County Circuit Court by Judge James McAuliffe yesterday after Fedders said he hopes for a reconciliation with his wife Charlotte, 41. But she shook her head in silence when her estranged husband said he hoped to patch up the marriage, the problems of which were detailed in a lengthy front page story in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.
In an interview after the hearing, the 5-foot-9-inch Charlotte Fedders described herself as "the classic abused wife" who suffered in private while her husband, who is a 6-foot-10 former Marquette University basketball player, was publicly pictured as one of the top law enforcement officials of the Reagan administration. Relatives of Charlotte Fedders took the wife-beating charges to the White House several months ago, but the issue did not become public until publication of the Wall Street Journal story yesterday.
Last year Charlotte Fedders composed a letter to President Reagan about her situation, but decided against sending it. It was her sister who finally forwarded it to the White House. In that letter, she said, "I am a victim of wife abuse. For over 16 years of marriage my husband periodically beat me. I will not go into specific dates and details, but I have had a broken ear drum, wrenched neck, several black eyes, many, many bruises. Once he even beat me around the abdomen when I was pregnant with my first baby."
"I do not understand . . . how a man can enforce one set of laws and abuse another," she wrote.
Fedders refused to talk with reporters after the divorce hearing in Rockville and later issued a statement saying, "I have hope for a reconciliation. It will take hard work on my part. Something good will come out of this for Charlotte, our sons and me." During yesterday's hearing Fedders' eyes were riveted on his wife, who stared straight ahead rather than return his attention.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said, "We don't have any comment on that. It has been our standard practice to accept the recommendation of the head of an agency [in] dealing with a problem of that type. I think Fred Fielding, White House counsel has been involved in it, but other than that we are just not in a position to expand comment or go into detail on it. I don't know much about it."
SEC Chairman John S.R. Shad said Fedders "has not offered his resignation; he has not been asked to resign, nor have I discussed resignation." Administration sources said they knew of no plans to ask Fedders to resign or take a leave of absence.
Praising Fedders' "outstanding job," Shad said the enforcement director's work has not suffered since he and his wife separated in June 1983. As the SEC's top enforcement official, Fedders supervises a staff of 200 lawyers, accountants and investigators who police the nation's securities markets.
Besides his marital problems, Fedders has been enmeshed in controversy over his role as an outside lawyer for Southland Corp., owner of the 7-Eleven chain, during the time when the company was accused of covering up a bribery scheme. An internal SEC investigation found conflicts in testimony between Fedders and other Southland officials but said there was insufficient evidence to file charges against him.
Shad said that when he hired Fedders, he warned him that he would earn far less money than he had made in private practice, but did not know that Fedders had gotten into financial difficulties during his time at the SEC. Through a spokesman, Shad said he "did not know the extent of his [Fedders'] personal problems until he read the newspaper."
Fedders took a $100,000-a-year pay cut when he resigned as a partner in Arnold & Porter, the Washington law firm, to take the politically appointive SEC job . After earning more than $160,000 a year in private practice, Fedders started at $59,500 a year at the SEC. He now earns $72,300.
But the first year he was in the administration, Fedders' wife said, the family spent $137,000 -- roughly twice as much as he earned -- the divorce proceedings disclosed. Fedders said he made up for the deficit with cash he received from his old law firm and by borrowing the rest.
Charlotte Fedders and her five sons continue to live in the family's $285,000 Potomac home. Fedders has moved to a $755-a-month apartment on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington.
Charlotte Fedders' attorney, Bryan Renehan, told the court Fedders arranged a $150,000 line of credit from Madison National Bank and planned to borrow as much as needed to maintain his life style while working for the government.
After lending Fedders more than $40,000, Charlotte Fedders said, the bank refused to make further loans after disclosures that Fedders was being investigated concerning his role in the Southland case.
Four of the Fedders children attend the Woods School in Bethesda and another is a student at St. John's College High School in the District. Charlotte Fedders has worked part time at Woods School to help pay the children's tuition, which totals $15,000 a year.
Witnesses in the divorce case have testified that Fedders felt he could afford to spend more than he was making in his government post because he was counting on getting a much higher paying job when he returned to private practice.
Charlotte Fedders said the family tried to economize. She began shopping in discount stores and pumping her own gas and offered to give up her maid. "But he [Fedders] wanted her still for twice a week and I cut it down to once a week," she testified. "I even suggested that we go on an inactive membership at the Congressional Country Club and join the cheaper just-swim club but he said . . . . No. He didn't want to do that."
Fedders told The Wall Street Journal he blames his marital problems on the grand jury investigation and fallout from the Southland case. "You don't know John Fedders unless you know what I've gone through on Southland," he said.
But his wife and relatives tell a different story, describing a pattern of violence that began soon after the devout Catholic couple were married and continued until the night they broke up.
After hearing President Reagan in his 1984 State of the Union promise "to intensify our drive against . . . horrible crimes like sexual abuse and family violence," Charlotte Fedders wrote the letter to the president, but never mailed it. It was several months later when a copy of the letter was passed to White House Counsel Fielding by a sister of Charlotte Fedders. According to The Wall Street Journal, Fielding assured her, "The President would never knowingly keep a spouse abuser in a top administration job."
There is no indication of any White House action on the matter.
During often tearful divorce court testimony, Charlotte Fedders said her husband became obsessed with fears of tracking dirt into their Potomac home. "We weren't allowed to wear our shoes in the house, none of us were," she testified. "He said it would get the house dirty, so we had to take them off when we came in the house."
In one family quarrel, Charlotte Fedders testified, she finally confronted her husband over his demand that she go barefoot at home.
"I remember my words because I said, 'Another thing, I'll wear my shoes in my own home if I want to.' And he came out after me and he tried, he grabbed me by the hair and he tried to throw me over the banister, which would have been about a five- or six-foot drop."
Charlotte Fedders said she dropped to the floor to try to escape her husband, "but he had me by the hair, and I had collapsed my knees and I was on my knees yelling at him, 'Stop!' and he just shook me by the hair and just shook me up and down and back and forth and just kind of threw me down."
The incident left her with persistent neck injuries that require her to wear a neck collar at times, she testified, saying that after another fight, she required four stitches to close a wound.
Fedders denied he intended to throw her over the banister and testified he was "forever remorseful" about the injury to his wife's neck. Though he has not denied most of the allegations made by his wife, Fedders said her versions of the violent episodes are exaggerated.
He specifically disputed her charge that he threatened to kill her, testifying, "The only place I'm going berserk about denying anything is this stuff about trying to kill her," according to The Journal.
Other testimony in the divorce case indicated Fedders began spending nights away from home some time before the couple separated in February 1983. Asked in court proceedings whether he had ever committed adultery, Fedders wrote back: "Upon advice of counsel defendant is unable to admit, deny or explain an answer to this interrogatory."
The couple finally separated after a fight over shoveling snow. The children had cleared a foot-deep fall, when Fedders knocked snow from the garage roof onto the driveway and ordered the children to go back out and clean it up.
Fedders yelled obscenities at the children, according to court records of his wife's testimony. "I had a little wooden toy in my hand . . . and I hauled it at him, threw it at him. It missed him completely, but that's when he took his closed fist and hit me right in the left eye. And my glasses, they were brand new glasses . . . they fell to the ground and they broke and I had a very black eye."
A few months later the couple fought for the last time as Fedders was sorting through their possessions and moving out of the house, Charlotte Fedders testified. "He picked up a Spode pitcher and he said, 'Do you like this?' and I said, 'Yeah, I always liked that,' and he threw it on the ground and broke it."
The two struggled over a Hummel madonna and a Lennox vase, Charlotte Fedders recalled. "I don't remember all the specifics, except that he picked up a heavy Steuben ashtray or candy dish that someone had given him as a speaking gift or a professional gift and he threw it at me and hit me on my right hip and that of course shattered . . . ."