Katie Hill's Exit Renews #MeToo Anxiety in Washington

Katie Hill's Exit Renews #MeToo Anxiety in Washington
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File
Katie Hill's Exit Renews #MeToo Anxiety in Washington
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File
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Katie Hill, part of the ambitious group of women who helped hand Democrats the House majority last year, was expected to break a lot of boundaries when she came to Washington — though new House ethics rules passed to curb #MeToo complaints weren’t among them.

At 32, Hill is young, attractive and one of the first openly bisexual members of Congress. She was a rising star whose quick flameout has both parties on edge once again over #MeToo allegations and inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace and whether Washington’s reckoning, in contrast to that of Hollywood and Manhattan, still has a long way to go.

Revelations over the last week established that Hill had engaged in two sexual relationships with staffers, violating new House rules passed at the height of #MeToo furor.

Even though the congresswoman resigned Sunday, her complaints that she was the victim of “revenge porn” and treated unfairly by political adversaries and the media is handing new ammunition to Republicans still seething over the battle to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the series of unproven sexual-misconduct allegations Democrats raised against him.

Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder of Tea Party Patriots who strongly defended Kavanaugh during last fall’s confirmation battle, said Hill is now learning the hard way why the presumption of innocence is so important to our democracy.

“Sadly, Katie Hill is learning first-hand why the values we defended when Brett Kavanaugh was being accused are so vital to our society: presumption of innocence, due process and the impossibility of defending oneself in the court of public opinion,” she told RealClearPolitics.

In fact, Hill was one of the Democrats who quickly validated even the most salacious of sexual charges against Kavanaugh at the height of his confirmation battle. She labeled him a “serial predator” in several tweets and stood up for Julie Swetnick, the third woman to come forward against the nominee, accusing accuse him of participating in high school parties at which women were “gang raped” and made “disoriented” with alcohol.

“Julie Swetnick risked everything to come forward with her story and she is not alone,” Hill tweeted in September 2018. “This is not about the Supreme Court, this is about believing women and protecting survivors. I’ve lived this reality, and I know why so many of us never report.”

Hill resigned from Congress after nude photos appeared online – one in which she is kissing a female campaign staffer and another showing her brushing the young woman’s hair. That relationship was allegedly part of a “throuple” – a polyamorous relationship she was engaging in with her now-estranged husband.

The California freshman blamed the scandal on her “abusive husband,” whom she is divorcing, as well as “hateful political operatives.” Despite her resignation, she has vowed to continue her fight to ensure that other public figures don’t become victims of revenge porn, which she described as illegal “smear campaign” tactics in this case.

Like the 36-year-old allegations against Kavanaugh, Hill’s also included charges that alcohol abuse played a role in her relationship problems. In Hill’s case, drinking also caused her to miss key work-related flights.

The House Ethics Committee last week launched an investigation into allegations that Hill engaged in a sexual relationship with her legislative director, in violation of chamber rules. Hill denied those allegations, though she acknowledged her involvement with the female campaign staffer in the photos.

One day later, the ethics panel announced it would investigate charges that Guam’s delegate in Congress, Michael San Nicolas, broke House rules by having a sexual relationship with a member of his congressional staff.

Resentment over Hill’s #MeToo-related issues being made public while those involving other sitting lawmakers or senior aides have remained private could trigger a new flood of sexual harassment complaints in Washington just as Democrats are leading an impeachment charge against President Trump.

Along with creating the rule against lawmakers engaging in sexual relationships with staff, the House ended the practice of taxpayer money being used to privately settle sexual harassment cases against members of Congress. At the beginning of the #MeToo movement in the fall of 2017, critics lambasted the existence of a congressional slush fund that had paid out $17 million in workplace-related legal complaints, including those involving sexual harassment, since the late 1990s.

Some of the headlines about the hush money were overblown. That $17 million disbursed by Congress’s Office of Compliance included legal dispute settlements over pay, workplace safety and discrimination. And a large portion of the cases it resolved stemmed from Hill employers other than the House and Senate, including the Capitol Police and the Architect of the Capitol.

But critics of the practice were incensed that taxpayer funds for decades had been used to quietly settle sexual complaints against members of Congress and shield the lawmakers from public scrutiny on the issue. The opaque arrangement, they argued, allowed sexual harassment and other inappropriate #MeToo issues to fester and failed to warn future victims to avoid certain perpetrators.

After a public outcry, Congress in 2017 passed a bill that forced the settlement office to report and publish online every six months information on the legal awards and settlements. The reports must include the employing office, the amount of the award or settlement and the violation claims. If a claim is issued against a member of Congress, the report included details about whether the lawmaker personally repaid the Treasury account.

Interestingly enough, the latest report available for this year shows exactly zero settlements of any kind, sexual in nature or otherwise.

While a major improvement, the move hasn’t satisfied those critics who believe Washington has a long way to go when it comes to #MeToo reckoning.

“This congressional slush fund was shielding their identities and the taxpayer got stuck footing the bill,” Concerned Women for America CEO and President Penny Young Nance told RealClearPolitics. “I don’t care what party they are from, it’s unfair for the American people that they had to shell out funds for inappropriate behavior by members of Congress – and some of these people are still sitting in office.”

Nance called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to “stop shielding the identities of the members of Congress who have betrayed the public trust and engaged in sexual misconduct and covered it up by using taxpayer dollars.”

Other lawmakers, such as Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, have pushed measures to make members personally liable for sexual harassment legal actions against them. She played a key role in negotiating changes to House rules that require awards or settlements to be paid by the lawmaker to the Treasury account within 90 days. The rules also ensure that members who leave office will still be responsible for repaying the Treasury, including requirements that their annuities be garnished until full repayment is made.

Those rule changes further require the member -- or the office that employed the staffer accused of wrongdoing -- to certify that no taxpayer funds were used to pay for improper conduct.

Speier, who labeled the Office of Compliance “an enabler of sexual harassment,” raised alarm bells in the fall of 2017 when she publicly testified that at least two anonymous sitting members of Congress had settled sexual harassment complaints with taxpayer funds. She and others ridiculed the Office of Compliance so much that a measure passed to change its name to the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights.

Two years after those changes, political observers are crediting Pelosi with acting swiftly over the weekend to make it clear to Hill she must leave or face the spectacle of crumbling leadership support.

The speaker on Sunday issued a statement following Hill’s decision to resign, arguing that, while Hill came to Congress with a powerful commitment and a “bright vision for the future,” she “has acknowledged errors in judgment that made her continued service as a member untenable.”

But some liberal-leaning pundits see a double-standard on Capitol Hill, citing Sen. Al Franken’s 2017 resignation amid charges of sexual harassment by several women while Hill is voluntarily departing after “revenge-porn” photos of her were posted online.

Daily Beast columnist Margaret Carlson, appearing on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” said that Hill’s decision to quickly leave Congress shows that “women are treated more strictly than a man.” In addition, she argued that “Democrats are following the strictures of the Ethics Committee and others on sexual misconduct more strongly than Republicans are.”

To Nance, that double-standard argument is preposterous, considering the media firestorm against Kavanaugh, which two New York Times reporters just last month reignited with a new one-source, second-hand charge of an alcohol-fueled sexual incident. Times’ editors were forced to update the story with a note saying the alleged victim declined to be interviewed and her friends say she doesn’t recall the incident every happening.

Other critics have cited Democratic reticence to speak up against then-Rep. Keith Ellison, who was serving as the vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee when he ran a successful campaign for Minnesota attorney general.

Nance also pointed to Democrats’ relative silence on sexual-assault allegations against Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, which he has vigorously denied. (Last month, Fairfax filed a $400 million defamation suit against CBS News for airing the allegations of two accusers without providing countervailing information he says exonerates him.)

“Washington and Congress need to deal with this once and for all,” Nance said. “In order for it to be finished, they’ve got to disclose what happened in Congress – which offices relied on the settlements to make these allegations disappear.”

Imposing such retroactive measures is legally impossible – past efforts to do so ran up against several roadblocks.

“For instance, if you could now undo the nondisclosure agreement, would that member of that office, would they have resolved that claim knowing it was going to be disclosed? I can’t answer that,” then-House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg Harper said during a February 2018 press conference.

“…If a victim was to come forward and identify who was involved, we’re not going to use House resources to enforce that. But as far as going back and making it retroactive, our – the legal opinions were that we could not do that.” 

But legal limits offer little solace for party leaders still bracing for retribution after Hill’s departure.

“We’re all walking on eggshells a little waiting for the next shoe to drop,” one senior Hill staffer told RCP.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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