The Ugly, Right-Wing Campaign Against Katie Hill

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Earlier this month, the conservative, pro-Trump website RedState published a report alleging that Representative Katie Hill, a Democrat from California, had engaged in an affair with her legislative director, Graham Kelly. The report based its claim on a single Facebook post by Hill’s estranged husband, Kenny Heslep. (Hill and Heslep are currently in the midst of divorce proceedings.) A little over a week later, RedState published another piece targeting Hill, this time claiming Hill and Heslep were involved in a three-way relationship with a woman who had previously worked on Hill’s campaign. The story included a nude photo of Hill, which was quickly circulated by her opponents on Twitter. 

Then, this week, the site published what it claims are text messages between Heslep and the campaign staffer in which she allegedly says that Hill (as well as Heslep) treated her “really poorly.” Not to be outdone, the British tabloid the Daily Mail published what it claims are more nude photos of Hill, ostensibly newsworthy because they illustrate Hill and Heslep’s relationship with the former campaign staffer. (Jezebel has chosen not to link to the articles, since they potentially contain revenge porn.)

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In a statement to Politico, Hill denied the allegation about a relationship with her legislative director. But in a letter she sent to her constituents, she admitted to engaging in what she called an “inappropriate” but “consensual” relationship with the woman who had worked on her campaign. In that letter, she wrote:

The fact is I am going through a divorce from an abusive husband who seems determined to try to humiliate me. I am disgusted that my opponents would seek to exploit such a private matter for political gain.

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It’s clear that RedState and the Daily Mail were not interested in (or even minimally capable of) doing credible reporting on the allegation that Hill had an improper relationship with a congressional staffer—instead, they were interested in sharing her nude photos and unsubstantiated allegations made by her estranged husband. Publishing these photos had no purpose in the story, in fact, other than to humiliate and violate Hill.

Revenge porn—sharing sexually explicit photos of a person without their consent—is a crime in most states, including in Hill’s home state of California, where someone found guilty of the act can face up to six months in prison. Hill has announced that Capitol Hill police are investigating the release of her nude photos, and her attorneys have threatened legal action against the Daily Mail.

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Hill has acknowledged that her previous relationship with a campaign staffer uncomfortably skirts the boundaries of ethical behavior: In a letter she sent to her constituents on Wednesday night, Hill wrote, “During the final tumultuous years of my abusive marriage, I became involved in a relationship with someone on my campaign. I know that even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate, but I still allowed it to happen despite my better judgment. For that I apologize.” As the attorney Debra Katz put it to the New York Times, noting the inherent power imbalance between a boss and a subordinate, “[T]here’s nothing unlawful about having a relationship with people who work for you as long as it is consensual,” but, she added: “Clearly this shows bad judgment.”

But RedState and the Daily Mail are not actually examining those power dynamics, or the conduct of a then-aspiring member of Congress. Instead, they are publishing lurid trash and, in headline after headline, making sure to mention Hill’s bisexuality. (Some of Hill’s Democratic male colleagues haven’t exactly helped either, the New York Times reports that “some male Democrats said privately” that if Hill “had been a man, there would’ve been an immediate uproar that would most likely have ended in a forced resignation,” neglecting to mention that most cases where members of Congress have resigned have been due to instances of non-consensual behavior and harassment.)

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In response to the allegations, on Wednesday, the House Ethics Committee announced it was opening an investigation into whether Hill had an inappropriate sexual relationship with Kelly, her legislative director. (Last year, the House passed much-needed new ethics rules that prohibit relationships between members of Congress and their aides.) As Politico noted, “[T]here is no proof that an improper relationship with Kelly—who also worked on Hill’s campaign—occurred.”

Hill has put her relationship with her former campaign staffer in the context of what she describes as her “abusive marriage” with Heslep, hinting strongly that Heslep is behind the release of the nude photos to rightwing media outlets. “This coordinated effort to try to destroy me and the people close to me is despicable and will not succeed,” Hill wrote on Wednesday. “I, like many women who have faced attacks like this before, am stronger than those who want me to be afraid.”

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