"I will fight to ensure that no one else has to live through what I just experienced," Hill said in a video released Monday

By Diane Herbst
October 29, 2019 05:02 PM
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Rep. Katie Hill
| Credit: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

On Monday, her voice at times choked with emotion, California Rep. Katie Hill said in a videotaped statement that her “difficult” decision to resign was made to spare supporters from “the pain inflicted by my abusive husband and the brutality of hateful political operatives” after nude photos of her were published along with allegations that she had an affair with a staffer.

Hill, described as a rising Democratic star after her election to represent a Los Angeles-area district last year, was little known nationally until last week.

But cascading articles in conservative media outlets — which mixed naked photos of Hill along with purported text messages and other personal details about her life, all anonymously sourced — put a spotlight on her romantic relationships and called her professional judgment into question.

Last week, the House Ethics Committee said it was investigating her following these reports, which claimed that she had been involved with her legislative director, Graham Kelly. She denies this.

In early 2018, in the shadow of the rise of the #MeToo movement, Congress passed new rules forbidding relationships between lawmakers and their staffers as a way to combat sexual harassment and misconduct on Capitol Hill.

Hill is one of the first openly bisexual members of Congress and was given a top position on the House Oversight Committee after flipping a district in Republican control for more than 20 years.

Separately, Hill did admit to an “inappropriate” relationship with an aide on her congressional campaign.

“Clearly there is an inherent power differential between Congresswoman Hill and a young campaign staffer who worked for her, but there’s nothing unlawful about having a relationship with people who work for you as long as it is consensual,” outside attorney Debra Katz told The New York Times. “But clearly this shows bad judgment.”

The initial articles about Hill, which began with posts on the conservative website RedState, wove claims about her relationships with both Kelly, the staffer, and the campaign worker together with compromising photos of Hill, alleged text messages between her and her husband and others and descriptions of her personal life.

The sources of this information have been not identified, though Hill maintains that her estranged husband, Kenny Heslep, is responsible.

According to RedState, Hill had allegedly been in a three-way relationship with both the campaign worker and Heslep, who filed for divorce from Hill this summer, citing “irreconcilable differences.” They married in 2010.

Following RedState reports, The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, published further intimate photos and details about Hill’s relationships.

On Monday, Hill again suggested Heslep was behind what she called a “coordinated campaign carried out by the right wing media and Republican opponents.”

“Enabling and perpetuating my husband’s abuse by providing him a platform is disgusting and unforgivable and they will be held accountable,” she said.

In a separate letter released Sunday about her resignation, Hill said she was “pursuing all … available legal options” over the “illegal” release of “private photos.” Her attorneys reportedly sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Mail demanding the photos be taken down. She said last week that police were also investigating, according to the Times.

On Monday, Hill vowed that now she would move into a “new fight” against “revenge porn” and “digital exploitation.”

“Since the smear campaign began, the Congresswoman has continued to receive threats from both her husband and Republican political operatives, who have said they were far from done releasing private, potentially obscene photographs,” an aide to Hill tells PEOPLE.

Hill said in her Monday video statement that she resigned to avoid allowing such attacks to distract from the work of her colleagues. Once she formally leaves office — which Politico reports could be as soon as Nov. 1 — she said she would work to “ensure no one else has to live through what I just experienced.”

Rep. Katie Hill
| Credit: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

Hill’s case underscores the changing attitudes in Congress toward sex, in response to numerous stories of sexual misconduct and power abuses there, prompted by #MeToo.

As noted by USA Today, some Hill defenders argue that while her downfall was swift, the same hasn’t always been true of male lawmakers, who have faced varying consequences. California Rep. Duncan Hunter, for example, will go on trial next year after being accused of using campaign money to carry on affairs and for other personal expenses. He pleaded not guilty and has not left office.

The spread of Hill’s deeply personal photos highlights changing laws, too: In recent years, more and more governments have taken steps to criminalize the nonconsensual release of sexually explicit material.

“Some people call this electronic assault, digital exploitation. Others call it revenge porn,” Hill said in her Monday video. “As the victim of it, I call it one of the worst things that we can do to our sisters and our daughters. … I will not allow my experience to scare off other young women or girls from running for office.”

Forty-six states now have revenge porn laws, including California. A first offense, considered a misdemeanor, is punishable with up to six months in jail and a fine up to $1,000, according to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, who has sponsored a bipartisan bill which would make the publication of revenge porn a federal crime, told BuzzFeed News that she while she “respected” Hill’s decision to leave office, she added: “Let’s also speak the truth that men and women are not held to the same standards. I mean — look at who’s in the White House.” (She was referring to multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against President Donald Trump, which he denied.)

Harris also told BuzzFeed News that the release of the photographs was “public shaming” that could discourage other women from running for public office.

Heslep did not respond to PEOPLE’s call seeking comment. Kelly told PEOPLE last week he had no comment.

Representatives with The Daily Mail and RedState did not respond to messages.