Katie Hill, rising Democratic star in House, denies relationship with staff member

“Intimate photos of me and another individual were published by Republican operatives on the internet without my consent.”

Representative Katie Hill at a campaign event in Santa Clarita, Calif., last year.
Rep. Katie Hill at a campaign event in Santa Clarita, California, last year. –Rozette Rago / The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Rep. Katie Hill, a first-term Democrat widely considered a rising star in her party, on Tuesday denied reports that she had a sexual relationship with a member of her congressional staff but refused to comment on an allegation that she was intimately involved with a campaign aide, saying that a nude photograph of her and another woman was published on the internet without her consent.

Hill, 32, of California, made her comments in a brief interview and a statement in response to a report on conservative news site RedState alleging that she had been intimately involved with her legislative director and separately in a three-way sexual relationship with a young campaign aide and her husband, whom she is divorcing.

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Members of Congress are barred by House rules from engaging in sexual relationships with their aides, but the rules do not cover campaign staff. Hill said the photograph, which appears to show the congresswoman seated and brushing the hair of another woman, was the subject of a police investigation.

“Intimate photos of me and another individual were published by Republican operatives on the internet without my consent,” Hill said in the statement.

“I have notified Capitol Hill police, who are investigating the situation and potential legal violations of those who posted and distributed the photos, and therefore will have no further comment on the digital materials,” she said.

Conservative critics of Hill have called on her to resign, saying the photographs posed a national security risk and could have exposed her to blackmail. But Hill said she had no intention of quitting. Supporters said she was a victim of “revenge porn” — technically known as nonconsensual pornography — which is illegal under California law.

Hill said the stories, which she called “a smear campaign,” were being driven by Republican operatives and a “husband who seems determined to try to humiliate me.”

She said she had spoken to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenant, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, about the matter. Hoyer declined to comment, and a spokesman for Pelosi said the speaker was on her way to Baltimore on Tuesday for the funeral of her brother.

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Hill, who campaigned to make history as the first openly bisexual congresswoman from California, unseated a Republican, Steve Knight, in the so-called blue wave that carried Democrats to power in the House in 2018. She is a favorite of Pelosi, who named her vice chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, an unusually high-ranking position for a freshman on a panel that is playing a crucial role in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Hill represents parts of the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, the most conservative district in Los Angeles County, and is expected to have a tough reelection race there. Since the RedState report, her Republican critics have been circulating the nude photo on Twitter, which has taken the posts down for violating the platform’s rules against sharing explicit images of someone without their consent.

“She’s a victim of revenge porn, which is a form of domestic violence and psychological abuse,” said Kat Walker, a gun control activist and Hill supporter, who said she had spent 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.”

The report involving Hill — and the House leadership’s muted reaction to it — comes in the context of the #MeToo movement, amid heightened sensitivity about the conduct of men in positions of power, including members of Congress. It raises questions about whether there is a double standard for men and women who engage in intimate relationships in the workplace.

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RedState also published what it characterized as text messages between Hill and the campaign aide, who was not identified, that suggested Hill was breaking off their apparently consensual relationship so she could focus on her duties in Washington. If that is true, experts in workplace law said, it might be inappropriate but not illegal.

“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,” said Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer who represents victims of sexual harassment. “But clearly this shows bad judgment.”

Some male Democrats said privately Tuesday that if Hill had been a man, there would have been an immediate uproar that would most likely have ended in a forced resignation. In recent years, several men have resigned from Congress after stories about their sexual conduct, but those resignations often involved allegations of harassment.

The handling of such incidents tends to vary case by case. In November 2017, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, announced that he would not seek reelection after a nude photo of him was published, along with explicit text messages between him and a female constituent.

Also that November, Al Franken, D-Minn., was forced out of the Senate after he was accused of groping women, and Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan lost his post as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee — and was eventually forced to resign after several former aides accused him of harassment.

A month later, Ruben Kihuen, a relatively unknown Democratic House member from Nevada, was accused of propositioning his campaign finance director for sex despite her protestations. Within hours, Pelosi, then the Democratic minority leader, demanded his resignation.

Hill’s critics have been making vague threats on social media suggesting that more revelations about the congresswoman are to come. On Tuesday, RedState published an additional trove of text messages purportedly among Hill, the campaign aide and her husband.

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