Woman in D.C. says Congressman Kihuen made unwanted overtures toward her this fall
A 24-year-old woman who works at a Washington, D.C. firm that did business with Nevada Rep. Ruben Kihuen’s campaign said the freshman congressman made unwanted overtures and asked overly personal questions of her this fall while his campaign was a client of her firm.
The woman, who asked not to be identified because she fears it could jeopardize her future career prospects, is the fourth to come forward with accounts of unwanted advances from the 37-year-old Democratic lawmaker and the first to publicly describe interactions that happened after he was elected to Congress. The House Ethics Committee announced Friday that it would open an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against Kihuen; the congressman said he welcomed a chance to clear his name, although he announced on Saturday that he would not seek re-election because he claimed allegations would distract from running a campaign.
The woman described to The Nevada Independent conduct that she said made her feel flustered and uncomfortable, including Kihuen asking at the office why she didn’t have a boyfriend, asking if she lived alone and offering to help her move up in her career — something she interpreted as a possible suggestion for sexual favors.
At one fundraiser, she said, he rubbed her lower back and kissed her face several times.
“He was notorious. We work with [numerous members of Congress] and none of them have texted people in the office or kissed or done anything suggestive,” the woman said in a phone interview on Thursday. “He just hasn’t grown with the responsibility that’s grown. He still thinks he can act the way that he did when he was younger even though now he’s older and he’s in a position of power that requires a different level of personal ethics.”
She said the culture on Capitol Hill was to joke about Kihuen, who is unmarried, as flirtatious and confident.
When provided with a detailed list of interactions described in this report, Kihuen provided a statement to The Nevada Independent:
“I adamantly deny these unsubstantiated allegations. My interactions with this woman were limited and always professional. As I’ve said previously, I welcome the opportunity to clear my name before the House Ethics Committee.”
Fifteen minutes after responding to the Independent, the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a story in which Kihuen announced he will not seek re-election.
“Congressman Kihuen’s decision not to run for re-election speaks for itself. We deserve better from our members of Congress,” the woman said Saturday afternoon, after learning of the decision.
Kihuen and the woman knew each other from general interactions when Kihuen came to her firm — she said he had asked her in the past if she was an intern — as well as a brief conversation in an elevator and instances when Kihuen tried to start conversations with her through his personal email and cellphone (she showed a reporter images of the email and texts he sent; she said she tried to communicate a lack of interest or not respond). But things took a more personal turn when she and the congressman, 13 years her elder, both attended a karaoke-themed fundraiser at a bar on Oct. 25.
A 24-year-old friend who also attended the fundraiser and spoke to The Nevada Independent by phone on Friday recalled Kihuen arriving and talking to a larger group, but then “he drifted [the woman] away from us.”
As the woman put it, “he walks in, walks straight up to me, puts his arm around me, kissed me on the cheek and then spent the whole night talking to me.”
“He kissed me three times. He asked me if I live by myself, he asked me about my roommate, he told me he lives by himself, he asked where my apartment is, he asked me again how old I am, he asked me again if I don’t have a boyfriend and then he told me I’m one of the most beautiful girls he’s ever seen in D.C., and I said ‘that’s a low bar,’” she said. “I was trying to make it really clear I wasn’t really — he asked me why I didn’t have a boyfriend and I said ‘they’re more trouble than they’re worth that I’m just not looking for that.’ He looked me up and down and said ‘you’re really athletic, did you play any sports while you were in college?’”
The friend said she witnessed Kihuen getting close to the woman, touching her shoulder and lower back, and said it “looked inappropriate to us because we knew the context” — the woman had told her friend that she found prior interactions with Kihuen to be uncomfortable. To an onlooker, the friend said, it probably looked “borderline inappropriate.”
The woman said Kihuen asked how she stayed so fit, and when she said she runs, he asked if she wanted a running buddy or a bodyguard.
“And so this whole time he’s got his arm around me, rubbing my lower back, kissing the side of my face, and then the thing that upset me the most is when he said, ‘what do you want to do because I know you can’t want to [do this job] forever’ and I told him that I actually do want to work on the Hill one day and he said ‘Let me help you,’” she recalled. “He doesn’t know me, he doesn’t know the quality of my work. There’s no reason he would help me other than the fact that he would want something in return so it just sort of — it was upsetting.”
The friend said she thinks Kihuen could write the situation off as flirting, but she believes it was inappropriate because of the way he’s leveraged his role in Congress.
“I think that he is very aware of the charisma and power that he has and I think that he utilizes it for his advantage,” the friend said. “I guess he can say, yeah, I was flirting with [the woman] …
But he also keeps it back in his back pocket that he’s a member of Congress. And he does flirt with people in spaces where it’s not appropriate.”
The woman said she tried to discreetly seek opportunities to get away from Kihuen during the event, and tried to offer responses that indicated she was not interested, but he kept returning to talk to her.
She said some of her friends have asked why she didn’t reject him, outright.
“I’m not in a place to yell at a member of Congress and say ‘stop touching me’ because I just started my career,” she said. “He’s a member of Congress and a client of my firm and some of my friends were like, why didn’t you just shut him down? Tell him to stop talking to you? And it’s because there’s just such a power dynamic that makes it so you can’t, really.”
Other women who have made accusations against Kihuen said his behavior persisted in spite of their protests. A Kihuen campaign finance director identified as Samantha described how she reacted when Kihuen allegedly suggested the two get a hotel room together.
“I said ‘no’ very firmly and he just laughed at me. It was humiliating,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Samantha, who has asked to keep her last name anonymous, told The Nevada Independent Saturday via text message that it’s “insulting” Kihuen continues to deny the harassment allegations.
“The tone of his apology after the Buzzfeed article on December 1 was basically ‘I’m sorry if I did anything to make her uncomfortable’ as though I’m the problem for being upset by his behavior,” she wrote.
A lobbyist who told the Independent about instances of unwanted touching from Kihuen and said that she received hundreds of suggestive texts from him in the 2013 and 2015 Nevada legislative session said she tried a number of different tactics after receiving the messages, including brushing off the remarks as a joke, ignoring him and directly telling him “no.” A third woman, who worked as the front desk attendant at Kihuen’s Las Vegas condo in 2014 and 2015, told Buzzfeed that he would text her “creepy and nasty” comments at odd hours, forcing her to eventually block his number after he ignored her requests to stop.
The woman who works in Washington D.C. said she debated whether to come forward with her story after the first Buzzfeed article earlier this month. But she said she wanted to offer more nuance to the discussion and insight into interactions that aren’t as extreme as, for example, when Arizona Rep. Trent Franks asked a female employee to be a surrogate.
“I just really want these women to know they’re not alone, and I think there’s something to be said for this type of like — you know, it’s not subtle, but it’s a form of harassment,” she said. “I think I’ve kept moving my bar of what I would consider inappropriate, because I just want to do my job. You know, I just want to go to work everyday and do my job. But he just keeps pushing the line so you keep moving the goalposts between what would ordinarily be the line because it’s so much easier to just not.”
The woman said the interactions with Kihuen started in October when they took an elevator together.
“He said ‘Hey, I know you,’ and I said, ‘Hi congressman,’ and he said ‘Are you married?’” the woman recalled. “And I said, ‘No, are you married?’ knowing full well that he’s not, and he said ‘Well, do you have a boyfriend?’ And I said ‘no.’ And he said, ‘Well, a beautiful young girl like you — I can’t believe you don’t have a boyfriend,’ and it was really sort of off-putting.”
She said she tried to brush it off with a joke.
Also during the elevator ride, she said, Kihuen asked how old she was and when she said 24, “he said I still have time.” A screenshot of a text message exchange she provided to The Nevada Independent shows she referenced the question about her age while talking with a friend about Kihuen.
The woman said some people viewed the advances as amusing and a joke, and she said she received encouragement to pursue a fling with Kihuen when he started showing interest in her because it could advance her career. But she said she was troubled by the situation, seeing it as potentially damaging to her reputation and something that “delegitimizes” her as a professional.
“I want to be taken seriously, and it’s just an insult to all the work that I’ve done and to my intelligence to look me up and down and ask me how tall I am and if I play any sports because I look really athletic,” she said.
A second encounter came about two weeks later, she said, when she ran into Kihuen in a hallway. When he struck up a brief conversation, she told him she was headed to a lunch event but said there would probably be leftovers if he wanted some. Leftovers were commonly made available to people in the office after events.
Shortly after that, on the afternoon of Oct. 11, Kihuen sent a message from his personal Gmail account. (The woman hadn’t provided him her email address, but said she believes he figured it out based on a common format the firm uses for its addresses.)
“Hi [name redacted]. I hope this is your email address. Just wanted to say thank you for offering to bring me lunch today. Not sure if I said thanks. You’re so sweet. :) Ruben.”
She said she replied with a polite response that also had her email signature attached, which included her work cell phone number. The following evening, he texted her work cellphone with a smiley face emoji, and followed with a text that read: “Btw…this is Ruben K. Very kind of you to offer to bring me lunch yesterday.😊”
The Nevada Independent verified that the text came from Kihuen’s cell phone number. She said she ignored it, but said Kihuen brought up the leftovers at least one other time — something she said bothered her because it seemed to suggest there was deeper meaning to a statement she felt was mundane.
“The reception to me seemed more manageable than when it happened in my office because I think every woman knows how to fend off a guy at a bar,” she said. “But in the fluorescent lighting of my office when I’m running in between meetings — it’s just so off-putting, to have someone who you know what, you hold them to a higher standard and I think for good reason and then — it’s just disappointing when they don’t live up to it.”
She said one of the Nevada lobbyist’s statements in a Nevada Independent article earlier this week — that perhaps Kihuen doesn’t know that some of his behavior is wrong — resonated with her.
“Part of me wants to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that women have generally responded positively to him interacting like this and he just hasn’t grown with the responsibility that he’s been given over the past few years,” she said. “And then part of me, you know, the less generous part of me, thinks he just serially does not respect women, doesn’t listen to us, views us as sex objects, as conquests. And so I don’t know if it’s somewhere between not knowing that people don’t like it and really just being a shitty person.”
Note: Editor Jon Ralston explains our decision to publish here.