United States Rep. Katie Hill resigned from the House of Representatives around two weeks ago. Her resignation is the culmination of what investigative journalism has begun to demonstrate appears to be an attempt by her soon to be ex-husband to seek some form of revenge against her for divorcing him.
It was also an effort to weaponize her soon to be ex-husband’s efforts for political gain by Republican campaign operatives. These operatives masked themselves as journalists and worked for the member of Congress that Hill defeated in 2018 (who happens to be considering running to take back his old seat, now that Hill has resigned).
To clarify, there are two separate but related lines of effort involved in the events that led to Hill’s resignation. The first were those of Hill’s husband, Kenny Heslep, (who she is divorcing), shopping dirt on her to several outlets. The second is the weaponization of this dirt by Republican campaign operatives for her former opponent to damage her congressional career. These operatives have presented themselves as journalists since the campaign ended.
According to The LA Times, Red State (a conservative blog-cum-digital news and commentary site now owned by Salem Media) has run two stories about Hill and the allegations about her sexual behavior. The second piece ran under the byline of Jennifer Van Laar. Van Laar worked on the unsuccessful 2018 reelection campaign of Hill’s opponent, Knight. This second article included a nude photo of Hill braiding a clothed woman’s hair with the woman’s face obscured.
Van Laar went on to write a longer article for The Daily Mail, with several more nude photos of Hill, as well as screen captures of text messages from Hill’s husband. Van Laar was never identified as having worked for Knight’s reelection campaign. Nor was it mentioned that she accepted a position working on the campaign of another Republican candidate seeking to unseat Hill in 2020. No mention was made that Van Laar uses a different name when working in politics than the one she uses for writing at Red State.
Before Van Laar’s first article being published, another former Knight staffer, Joe Messina, a California radio host who worked as a campaign advisor for Knight, had been sent a large zip file with nude pictures of Hill and texts from her husband. Messina notified the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) that he had them and then wrote a post for his blog about them on Oct. 17, 2019. He claimed never to have circulated the zip file.
On Oct. 31, LA Times corroborated reporting done by Alexander Thomas, who is Playboy’s DC correspondent. Thomas broke this part of the story beginning on Oct. 29, through his Twitter account and not via Playboy. Thomas’s reporting is based on multiple sources and audio, the latter of which he had reviewed by an attorney before the publication of the recordings. Thomas’s reporting is that the NRCC was shopping these images and texts in an attempt to smear Hill. His subsequent reporting and that of others clarify that the NRCC may not have actually had the material; because Messina is a Republican campaign operative, they were shopping it with him as the source.
This is where we come back to the first line of effort: Hill’s soon to be ex-husband’s attempt to shop harmful material about Hill to a local digital media host. This has been incorrectly referred to as ‘revenge porn’, which somehow implies that the victim, Hill, had it coming as her husband is getting revenge against her.
Hill’s husband, who she has described as abusive, is now claiming that his computer was hacked and the nude pictures and text messages that Messina and the NRCC have been shopping — material that Messina blogged about, and Van Laar included in her reporting for Red State and The Daily Mail — were stolen. Hill’s husband claims he isn’t the source of the photos getting out. The reason for Heslep’s statement seems to be the reality that California has relatively strong non-consensual pornography laws. Ultimately a forensic analysis of Heslep’s computer will determine if he is telling the truth.
Because imagery and texts from Hill’s husband’s computer and phone have now been released and published, the incident has become about cyber sexual and spousal abuse. The LA Times reporting makes it clear, from an interview with Heslep, that he felt as if Hill had wronged him, cut him off financially, and stranded him at their California home when she left him, subsequent to filing for divorce. The attempt to circulate damaging information to a local digital media outlet appears to be an attempt to strike back, reassert his control and damage her by taking away her control over her personal information.
Heslep’s weaponization of Hill’s private, consensual nude photos, from an affair he also participated in, was an act of cyber spousal abuse. The weaponization of this information by Republican campaign operatives presenting themselves as journalists is cyber sexual abuse by third parties for political gain and profit.
That this weaponization of information was effective is evident; Hill resigned. In the short term, a criminal investigation is pending in California and civil litigation within Hill’s and Heslep’s divorce and by Hill against the media involved.
Hill’s focus now moves from Congress to combating the cyber spousal and sexual abuse to which she has been subjected. Her story, and the story of this cyber spousal and sexual abuse will remain on view because of the political connections.
It appears that it wasn’t just Messina and the NRCC that knew about this material two days before Van Laar’s first article appeared. Convicted Federal felon and retroactive conspiracy theorist, George Papadopolous tweeted that Hill’s seat would be wide open on Oct. 17, 2019 (the same day that Messina wrote his blog post and two days before Van Laar’s first article appeared). Papadopolous has subsequently filed to run for the seat previously occupied by Hill. Regardless of Papadopolous’s merits as a candidate and potential member of Congress, his pre-campaign tweet and his campaign announcement alone will keep the story alive.
In the brave new world of 2019, Americans are regularly subjected to information warfare through a variety of domains of transmission – cyber/digital, traditional print, and broadcast news and social media. We are experiencing the weaponization of information, including the most private and personal information.
This is a critical problem, not just for elites, notables, or for high value-high net worth individuals, but for everyone. As more and more of our lives are shared online and/or through digital and social media, more and more of our information is available for weaponization. It holds the potential to ruin relationships, careers, lives, and our shared civic life as citizens of a self-governing Republic.
Hill won’t be the last victim. Perhaps we’ll figure out a way to deal with such revelations in a manner that doesn’t drive a woman from Congress for a consensual affair (and as yet unproven allegations of a second one), while one of her male colleagues in the California House delegation, despite being under federal indictment for charges of using taxpayer dollars to pay for his multiple affairs with multiple lobbyists, refuses to consider resigning.
We all need to think about a better way to resolve these issues that doesn’t involve a clear double standard; allowing powerful men to survive allegations that immediately bring down powerful women. It is 2019, not 1889 or 1919. We should be able to do better than be hypocritical, regardless of our partisan political positions.
Author’s note: I specifically chose not to link to several articles/sites referenced in this column, specifically by Red State and The Daily Mail, as they actively participated in perpetuating a campaign of cyber sexual and spousal abuse and contain imagery that is part of that abuse.