A Guide to the Incredibly Complicated Katie Hill Scandal – The Cut

Rep. Katie Hill. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

The House Ethics Committee announced on Wednesday evening that it was launching an investigation into representative Katie Hill, and her alleged sexual relationships with her legislative director and a staffer on her congressional campaign.

Hill is a freshman Democrat from California, and is one of the first openly bisexual women in Congress. Reports of her alleged relationships first surfaced on the conservative website RedState late last week in a post titled “CA Rep. Katie Hill Allegedly Involved Female Staffer in 2-Yr ‘Throuple’ Relationship.” The post included intimate pictures of Hill and the staffer, who has remained anonymous, as well as screenshots of what RedState claims are text messages between the staffer and Hill’s husband, Kenny Heslep, who filed for divorce in July. Some of the text messages suggest the staffer was abused in the relationship.

“During the final tumultuous years of my abusive marriage, I became involved in a relationship with someone on my campaign,” Hill said in a letter on Wednesday. “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. I wish nothing but the best for her and hope everyone respects her privacy in this difficult time.”

She denies, however, having a sexual relationship with her legislative director, Graham Kelly, and says that the accusations against her are coming from Heslep, whom she claims abused her and is “determined to try to humiliate me.” (Heslep has not commented on the allegations.)

The situation and its ensuing media coverage are troubling and complicated, and have raised questions about abuse, sexual harassment in the workplace, and revenge porn. Here’s what we know.

Hill was seen as a rising star within the Democratic Party.

Hill, 32, is a former policy advocate for the California nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless (PATH). She ran for Congress to represent California’s 25th Congressional District in 2018, beating Republican incumbent Steve Knight, and flipping what had traditionally been a securely red district.

According to the New York Times, she is a “favorite” of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who named her vice-chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, a high-ranking position for a freshman representative.

She is being investigated to see if she violated new House ethics rules regarding sexual harassment.

In 2018, following the start of the Me Too movement, the House of Representatives announced new rules which prohibit sexual relationships between members and their aides. While the rules don’t explicitly extend to campaign staff like the woman Hill admitted to having a relationship with, the Washington Post reports that the Ethics Committee has concluded that it has jurisdiction over “misconduct relating to a successful campaign for election to the House.”

As for claims that she had an affair with her legislative director, Graham Kelly — a relationship that would fully violate the ethics rules — Hill told The Hill these allegations are “absolutely false.”

In a statement, Hill wrote that she is “fully and proactively cooperating with the Ethics Committee,” adding: “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.”

Capitol Hill police are investigating possible violations of revenge-porn laws.

In its report of the claims against Hill, RedState published three photos of her, including one in which she’s nude.

“Intimate photos of me and another individual were published by Republican operatives on the internet without my consent,” Hill said in a statement on Tuesday. She added that she had notified Capitol Hill police of the incident, and that they are investigating the “potential legal violations of those who posted and distributed the photos.”

Revenge porn, or nonconsensual pornography, is illegal in the District of Columbia, and punishable by up to 180 days in jail.

What makes revenge porn so insidious, however, is how difficult it is to fully quash. As the New York Times reports, many Republican critics of Hill have been posting the explicit pictures of her on Twitter. The platform has removed the posts that have been reported, but users are still rushing to upload new ones.

As Kat Walker, a gun-control activist and Hill supporter told the Times, she’s spent much of the past several days reporting Twitter users who posted the photo. “We worked very hard for her. I already know I’m going to have to work very hard for her again, scandal or no scandal.”

So far, Hill’s congressional colleagues have had mixed reactions to the news.

Democratic Party leadership has yet to comment on the allegations against Hill. Some male Democrats told the Times they felt the allegations received a muted response because Hill is a woman, and that if she were a man, there would have been “an immediate uproar that would most likely have ended in a forced resignation.”

Many outlets have drawn comparisons to the cases of former Senator Al Franken, who left the Senate after he was accused of groping women, and Texas congressman Joe Barton, who said he would not be running for reelection in 2018 after explicit text messages he exchanged with a constituent and nude photos of him surfaced online.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Hill received a strong statement of support from Republican congressman Matt Gaetz, who suggested she was being targeted because of her bisexuality. “Katie isn’t being investigated by Ethics or maligned because she hurt anyone — it is because she is different,” he wrote in a tweet.

Indeed, a lot of attention has been paid to Hill’s sexuality.

As Vox notes, conservative outlets in particular have emphasized Hill’s bisexuality, and the fact that she, her husband, and her campaign staffer were potentially a “throuple” who took multiple vacations together.

“Throuple,” “photos,” and “uncensored” were some of the top Google search terms linked to Hill’s name this week. “This is, to put it mildly, not how the allegations against Sen. Franken were received,” Vox’s Anna North writes.

This saga is just getting started.

According to the Times, critics of the congresswoman have been suggesting there is more information about her yet to come as RedState has continued to publish dozens of supposed text messages between Hill and the staffer.

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