A window into our reporting on the first woman to accuse Kihuen of harassment as a congressman
It seemed inevitable after we published our story of a second accuser saying Rep. Ruben Kihuen harassed her: Others would come forward. It never made sense that if there were two, they were the only women he had made unwanted advances toward. We had already heard wisps from a number of women; then an email came.
“Ruben did it to me, too,” the subject line said. “I read Megan’s (Messerly) story last night about Rep. Kihuen and I would like to talk to you all (on background) about my experience with him.”
And then this: “My experience was not nearly as prolonged or as explicit as the lobbyist’s, but he made repeated unwanted advances towards me at work. I would prefer to tell the story on the phone, but I’ve attached a few texts so you know I’m not making it up.”
After looking over the texts, we decided her story was at least worth hearing. We agreed that Michelle Rindels would interview her, and see what she would agree to provide us in the way of back-up information, and we’d then decide whether we would make it public and also whether we would grant her anonymity.
So Michelle talked to her at length over the phone.
The woman then provided us with additional screenshots and also with Kihuen’s email to her.
We also took the time, as we did with the female lobbyist in our prior story, to obtain corroborating accounts from those who witnessed or knew about Kihuen’s advances.
After Michelle debriefed Managing Editor Elizabeth Thompson and me, we knew the decision to publish the story and agree to anonymity would be more difficult than the first one. Why?
Because there were no texts with obviously sexual comments, and because the cases of unwanted touching consisted of Kihuen putting his arm around her and repeatedly kissing her at an event. The touching was inappropriate, but not as intimate as putting his hand on her thigh, as two other women have said he did to them.
The team debated whether a reasonable person might view some of his behavior as that which any unmarried man might do with a single woman in whom he had an interest – i.e., whether it was simply flirting.
We asked ourselves: Where is the line between flirting and harassment? Is determining that line solely up to the person being pursued? Is there some objective standard that can be applied? And does the power dynamic of the relationship — staffer/employer, lobbyist/lawmaker, employee of a consulting firm/client — matter?
There are no easy answers to these questions, and we believe every case needs to be evaluated on its merits.
Here’s what we decided in this case (and why we decided to publish even after Kihuen adamantly denied her story):
First, this was the first instance we know of when Kihuen, as a congressman, exhibited the same behavior he did as a state senator in Carson City: Repeatedly turning what are supposed to be professional interactions with women, including those who depend on him for income or votes, into opportunities to proposition them and even get “handsy,” as it has been described by one woman. It showed a pattern.
Second, this woman told us that Kihuen, amid all of this behavior, told her he could help her career, which comes awfully close to a quid pro quo offer. That is no small thing, especially when coming from a member of Congress.
Third, this woman felt demeaned, as others before her did, by his treating her not as a professional who was working for him but as a sex object. He repeatedly asked inappropriate, intrusive questions about her personal life and physical fitness. No reasonable person can believe this is how a congressman — or anyone! — should behave in a professional setting.
We concluded that because the woman’s stories were credible, and because one was confirmed by a witness, and because they revealed a pattern of inappropriate behavior that continued even after Kihuen was elected to Congress, we would publish the story.
As for allowing the woman to be anonymous, the D.C. world may not be as tiny as the Carson City bubble, but it is small. The woman fears for her job — and for her employer, which relies on other congressional members for revenue.
Additionally, we found it compelling that she was so willing to share so much detail and to have those details shared with Kihuen when we sought his response. Michelle, in conversations with her, discovered key pieces of information that made her even more credible than she seemed initially – details we could and would show to our readers.
We are completely confident in the veracity of this story, just as we were with the last one. We would not publish it otherwise.
We want to know what you think, so please leave comments here or go to our Contact page to give feedback or our Tips page if you want to tell your own stories. We want you to be part of this ongoing dialogue on a very important issue.