Hill's quick exit in the face of allegations casts spotlight on Congress and #MeToo
By PAUL KANE | The Washington Post | Published: November 2, 2019
WASHINGTON — Ruben Kihuen, not even a year into office in Congress, panicked that his entire career was spinning into a series of sexual scandals that would ruin any future ambition for the onetime rising Democratic star from Nevada.
He summed it all up in one text to two advisers in late 2017: "I'm now afraid that more will come out if I wait too long to announce I won't seek reelection. Or that even if I announce no reelection that it will still not be enough for some and they will still come forward."
Two days later, Kihuen abandoned his political ambition, announcing he would not seek another term in office. It is a pattern that has played out in all too familiar ways.
On Thursday, barely a week after her own scandal burst into public, Katie Hill, 32, became the 10th member of Congress to announce plans to resign or not to run for reelection in the roughly two years since the #MeToo movement rocketed across politics, entertainment, the news industry and corporate America.
In a fiery speech from the House floor, Hill, D-Calif., ended her rising star career not quite 10 months after she first took the oath and won a leadership post for the giant class of freshman House Democrats.
Each case clearly has its own unique characteristics and victims who have endured their own pain, but Hill's resignation has sparked some introspection among lawmakers about how these cases are unfolding and the proper ways to handle them.
Hill is the first female member of Congress to resign for her own sexual conduct - Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., announced her retirement plans in 2018 after her improper oversight of allegations of an abusive relationship involving her staff - and Hill has only acknowledged an inappropriate relationship with someone who served as a campaign aide.
After some obligatory apologies to family, staff and constituents, Hill defiantly said that her reason for resigning came entirely from the fact that she alleged her ex-husband was going to continue to expose intimate photos of her to conservative news outlets.
"I am leaving because I no longer want to be used as a bargaining chip. I am leaving because I didn't want to be peddled by papers and blogs and websites, used by shameless operatives for the dirtiest gutter politics that I've ever seen and the right-wing media to drive clicks and expand their audience," Hill said.
Before her speech, during the last votes for the week, she walked around the House floor exchanging hugs and handshakes with fellow Democrats, not the shamed political pariah that some other lawmakers had become at the time of their resignation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., used the moment to praise her as a "very smart, strategic, patriotic" lawmaker who had been victimized.
"I do say to my own children and grandchildren, especially grandchildren, you know, some of these - I don't know what you would call them, appearances on social media - can come back to haunt you if they are taken out of context," Pelosi said Thursday.
For some observers - particularly defenders of Hill and former Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who resigned in December 2017 - the movement has mushroomed into a kangaroo court where the emergence of allegations is enough to render a political death sentence.
But in resigning, Hill did manage to escape a full investigation from the House Ethics Committee, which generally shuts down any probes once a lawmaker leaves office because the panel no longer has jurisdiction.
Of the 10 lawmakers cited above, eight have followed that path of resignation rather than serving out the rest of their terms and answering to an ethics investigation. Hill will never have to answer detailed questions about when her relationship started with her campaign staffer and whether it continued after she took office in January.
She, and her aides, will not have to undergo inquiries into her ex-husband's allegation on social media that Hill also had a relationship with a senior aide in her congressional office - something that became expressly forbidden when the House updated its rules in early 2018.
Hill has denied the allegation of an intimate relationship with a congressional aide.
Some workplace experts applauded the fact that Hill's admitted relationship with a subordinate received widespread condemnation. "It was immediately and widely seen as something that you can't do," said Kristin Nicholson, director of the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University and a 20-year veteran of Capitol Hill in several offices.
Nicholson, a personnel expert, said that the investigations into lawmakers and sexual relationships with staff are some of the most personally invasive possible, such as the text messages Kihuen shared with staff that were included in the final report.
"It's a really horrific process for those who aren't being investigated. It's a massive invasion of privacy," Nicholson said. "It might almost be a blessing for the staff to have this lawmaker gone."
Kihuen did something rare by finishing his term and submitting himself to a complete ethics investigation. Released without much fanfare after the 2018 elections, the bipartisan report painted a damning portrait of more inappropriate behavior than had previously been in the public realm.
The investigative subcommittee found that "Representative Kihuen engaged in unwanted physical contact with each of the aforementioned women and that Representative Kihuen made verbal advances to each of them that ranged from inappropriate statements to overt sexual aggression," the Ethics Committee wrote.
That investigation also made clear that the panel had jurisdiction over his behavior with campaign staff before he was a member of Congress - something Hill's advisers surely saw as a warning sign for her.
The committee, to its credit, moved these #MeToo cases more aggressively than some of its more meandering investigations of the past. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., who served on the ethics panel, announced in January 2018 that he would not seek reelection but promised to serve out his term after revelations that, as a 62-year-old congressman, he had written a love letter to a female staffer in her 20s and declared her a "soul mate."
By late April, as the ethics investigation continued, Meehan quit office immediately and was accused of taking the "coward's way" out of the probe by the victim's lawyer.
Hill, for now, is not leaving quietly. She lashed out at President Donald Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as examples of men who survived sexual allegations and hinted that she will run for office again someday.
"We will rise and we will make tomorrow better than today. Thank you and I yield the balance of my time for now, but not forever," Hill said.
Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., attends a hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 6, 2019. On Thursday, Oct. 31, Hill announced she was resigning. Her announcement came nearly week after it became known that she was the subject of a House ethics investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES