By Samantha Register
I had probably been sitting at the large wooden conference table for about an hour and a half at this point, answering in excruciating detail questions from three House Ethics Committee attorneys about my experience working on Ruben Kihuen’s 2016 congressional campaign. Out of the corner of my eye, a recorder typed everything that was said.
By “excruciating detail,” I mean questions I expected, like what did Congressman Kihuen say to me and when did he say it, and questions I didn’t expect, like what did our office look like and how many rooms did it have. I silently wondered why the committee cared what the campaign office looked like.
It was then that someone passed around enlarged, printed, and stapled copies of a series of online instant messages I had sent in 2016 to my boyfriend, who is now my husband, to all the attorneys and Members of Congress in the room. I had provided the attorneys from the committee with these messages months ago, after they had asked for any recorded communications I had with anyone detailing my experience of being sexually harassed by Congressman Kihuen.
The stapled documents also included a few messages I had sent to friends of mine, in addition to dozens of messages I had sent to my husband. Perhaps I should have anticipated this would happen, but nobody feels dignified when private messages sent to their spouse are being passed around to lawyers and Members of Congress and being read aloud.
Feeling mortified, I pressed on with the interview, hoping my embarrassment wasn’t visible to the other people in this very formal, sterile room.
In November 2017, I spoke with Kate Nocera from Buzzfeed News a few times about my experience working on the Kihuen campaign. To my surprise, Democratic leaders responded swiftly. Both Leader Pelosi and Chairman Lujan asking Congressman Kihuen to resign within hours of the Buzzfeed article being published.
However, Congressman Kihuen did not resign, which is how I, along with other witnesses, got dragged into a months-long House Ethics Committee investigation. I can’t speak for the other witnesses, but I found my interactions with the committee exhausting and emotionally draining.
I had no idea what to expect when a committee investigation was announced soon after Buzzfeed and The Nevada Independent published accounts of multiple accusations against Kihuen, though a couple of close friends and family members, as well as someone I briefly spoke with who works on Capitol Hill, suggested with urgency that I immediately find an attorney.
Find an attorney...? I’m a graduate student who works part-time. My husband is enlisted in the Air Force, and therefore doesn’t make much more money than I do. Now we were expected to pay for a lawyer? What Dr. Christine Ford said months later at one of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings rang true with me: I didn’t really realize I would need a lawyer until other people told me I did.
As I soon discovered, very few people have any idea how the House Ethics Committee operates. I couldn’t find any information online or from the few attorneys I know personally. The attorneys from the House Ethics Committee also had requested that I not discuss the investigation with anyone (other than my then-nonexistent attorney), which made asking around to see if any acquaintances knew anything about the process more difficult.
I’m assuming the fact that I don’t live anywhere near D.C. made it even more difficult to find anyone with any information about what I should expect. The only information I had at that point about how Congress handles sexual harassment cases were video clips I had seen of Members of Congress questioning Anita Hill in 1991, which did not make me feel any more comfortable with the process.
My husband tried contacting military legal services for advice but kept getting referred to different people who all seemed equally confused. I don’t think “my spouse has been asked to be a witness in a Congressional Ethics Committee investigation, so what should we do?” is a particularly common question for military legal services. I also tried contacting Time’s Up, though all they did was email me a long list of legal resources. At this point my husband and I were both tired of being referred to different people and different organizations.
Military legal services eventually connected us to an attorney near D.C., who made me feel comfortable, seemed more familiar with the Ethics Committee than anyone else we had talked to, and offered us a discount as a military family. I honestly don’t think we could have gotten a better deal anywhere else — and we still had bill of nearly $5,000 by the end of the investigation.
The financial burden wasn’t the only source of stress related to the investigation. The committee attorneys had indicated that I would be required to fly to D.C. so they could question me, but didn’t confirm the date until just 15 days before my interview.
The committee staff indicated that they would pay for my travel expenses, but that if my husband accompanied me to D.C., we would have to pay for his travel expenses out-of-pocket. My husband and I had planned that he would fly to DC with me. I didn’t want to be alone on a trip that required me to explain to a group of total strangers my experience with being sexually harassed by someone who is now a Member of Congress.
However, because the committee did not set my meeting date until 15 days before my actual interview, and didn’t give me my flight information until a week before, my husband didn’t have enough notice to request time off from work and book his own flights. I would have to go through the entire process alone.
After the House Ethics Committee declared that Congressman Kihuen had made “persistent and unwanted advances toward women who were required to work with him,” he said in a statement that he was sorry for making anyone feel “disrespected and uncomfortable.” Is the congressman also sorry that, instead of resigning as Leader Pelosi and Chairman Lujan asked, he chose to drag Ethics Committee staff and multiple witnesses through a months-long investigation?
I’m sure I’m not the only witness that was left flying solo when trying to find legal advice. Is the congressman also sorry for the amount of money witnesses spent on legal counsel for an investigation that they didn’t ask for? Is he sorry for the invasive experiences witnesses went through as they recounted details of sexual harassment and sat through reviews of all the corroborating evidence, including very personal messages, to a group of strangers?
I saw as part of the Ethics Committee report that Congressman Kihuen had texted an acquaintance that he feared “I can’t afford to pay my bills if I resign and will be hard to find a job right away.” The irony was infuriating.
The fear I felt while I was still employed by the Kihuen campaign – not feeling respected or safe from harassment in my current position, and not knowing what my source of income would be if I quit the campaign immediately – was very much on my mind when I saw the report. While still employed with the campaign, I spent weeks trying to discreetly find a new position while also trying to avoid Kihuen in the office as much as possible, all while knowing I probably couldn’t just tell a potential new employer I was leaving because the candidate I worked for was sexually harassing me.
I eventually found a new position with a campaign near my parent’s house that made it easy to relocate home, but I still had to take a pay cut to accept this new position while paying a fee to cancel my apartment lease in Las Vegas and cover the costs of relocating to a new state myself.
Had anyone considered the financial burden, and career impact, this experience had on me?
After 2016 I stopped working on campaigns because, as many people have probably realized, there are essentially no protections for political campaign staff against sexual harassment or other abusive behavior. I don’t know if I would have been blackballed as other women who have spoken out about sexual harassment have been if I had tried to continue working in politics. I can, however, confirm that searching for a job in a new career field where you don’t have any connections is incredibly difficult.
At interviews, potential employers seemed perplexed by my previous career path. I was told often that they were looking for someone with previous work experience more similar to what their organization does. It took me months to find a new position. And years later, I have yet to find a position that pays as well as when I worked on campaigns.
And then there is this: The House Ethics Committee did not warn me ahead of time that they were releasing the conclusions of their investigation to Congressman Kihuen. I found out that a report had been released when I started receiving messages from reporters as I was preparing for Thanksgiving break. Initially, I was just relieved. Then, when I read the full report hours later, I felt seething anger.
According to Kihuen’s former campaign manager, along with apparently criticizing my physical appearance, Kihuen had threatened to “destroy me” when he learned back in 2016 that I had complained about his behavior to a staff member at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Is the congressman also sorry for threatening me because I made a private complaint about his behavior, or is he only sorry for making me feel “disrespected and uncomfortable?”
This DCCC staff member himself had, according to the Ethics Committee report, ignored multiple requests to help with the investigation. To this day, nobody from the DCCC has called me either to apologize or to ask me to explain what happened to me during the campaign.
I can’t help but wonder what happened after the campaign manager confronted Kihuen about my complaint to a DCCC staffer. Did the DCCC ask for follow up on how the conversation went? Was the DCCC aware that Kihuen had threatened to “destroy me” but decided to support his campaign for Congress anyway? Did it cross their minds that other staff members on the campaign could be at risk? Did they decide internally that winning elections is more important than workplace safety?
Congress appears to at least be trying to address sexual harassment within its chambers with the recently passed Congressional Accountability Act. However, this bill (notably) does not provide legal counsel for victims, something that, as I can personally attest to, is a major burden on victims. The bill also does not address misconduct that occurs during the course of a political campaign.
I worked on eight different campaigns before I decided to quit, and none of them had either an HR department or any system in place for filing complaints. Campaign staff members who are being mistreated seemingly have no options other than either risk their careers and financial stability by quitting, or stay on a campaign and endure abuse.
I know many people who have only worked on only one or two political campaigns before quitting entirely, not specifically because of sexual harassment but because of other factors that created unsafe working conditions such as working 90 hours a week and experiencing bullying from fellow staff members or the candidates themselves. Political campaigns will continue to deter or lose staff members if they continue to ignore factors that create an unsafe work environment.
According to the findings they released, the House Ethics Committee apparently has jurisdiction over “misconduct related to a successful campaign for election to the House.” Can’t Congress do something to address workplace safety on campaigns as well as within its chambers?
Perhaps the incoming 116th Congress, having a record number of female members, will be willing to address sexual harassment and other abuse on campaigns as a priority. Considering the number of harassment cases coming out of both the U.S. Congress and numerous state legislatures, I am deeply concerned by a seeming unwillingness to address these issues on campaigns.