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Politics

GOP enemies wanted to beat Katie Hill. Then they got her nude photos

Katie Hill, the freshman Democrat from Santa Clarita, told colleagues Thursday that she is leaving because of a double standard for female politicians

Kenneth Heslep’s divorce from Katie Hill had grown nasty by the time he told a podcaster in late September that he was ready to talk publicly about his split with the Democratic congresswoman.

“Any interest in an interview, and the whole story yet?” Heslep texted Stephen Daniels, host of “Talk of Santa Clarita,” punctuating the offer with a smiling-face emoji. It was 1:40 a.m.

Daniels declined. “It was clear he wanted to air dirty laundry,” Daniels recalled Wednesday.

Conservative websites soon revealed that they had obtained some of Hill’s private texts and nude photos of her, including one with a campaign aide.

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The main authors of the articles, it turns out, were former campaign advisors to Steve Knight, the Republican congressman ousted by Hill a year ago.

The result was a shocking shift in fortune for a woman on a rapid rise to power after capturing a long-held Republican seat in 2018 in the northern suburbs of Los Angeles. Hill has announced her resignation. Her last day is Friday.

Her sudden downfall is due in part to the relationship she acknowledged having with the campaign staffer and an allegation that she had an affair with a congressional aide, which she has denied.

But it’s also the product of what she and her allies see as a plot by her estranged husband and former Knight operatives to use naked pictures to destroy her. Heslep did not respond to calls for comment, and Knight denied personal involvement.

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Now, Knight is considering a run to win back his House seat. Hill is trying to pick up the remnants of her professional and personal life.

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Hill and her husband, longtime sweethearts, were both waiting tables before they got married in 2010. By the time Hill was elected to Congress last year in an electric race that drew volunteers from across California, the couple’s lives had taken sharply diverging paths.

Hill had become a top executive at a Los Angeles nonprofit serving the homeless. She was one of more than three dozen Democrats who unseated Republicans, helping her party take control of the House in a suburban revolt against President Trump. She quickly became a member of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team.

While Hill, 32, was working in Washington, Heslep, 35, was living a quieter life in California, taking care of the couple’s horse, goat, turkey, chickens and dogs on their farm in Agua Dulce, a small town in the dry mountains between Palmdale and Santa Clarita. He has been unemployed since 2014. In his divorce filing, he suggested that the only reason he’d previously held jobs at Hill’s nonprofit was because of her influence.

Then, in June, Heslep wrote in the divorce papers, Hill came home from Washington and told him she was leaving. “She took our only operable vehicle and left me stranded at our residence.” Heslep said he had to borrow money from his parents to hire a divorce lawyer.

Heslep, described in Hill’s resignation letter as an abusive husband, criticized the congresswoman in his texts with Daniels.

“Even though I have made it clear that I am not looking for anything excessive, she is still fighting even basic spousal support,” he complained.

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The first public sign that Hill’s private life might cause serious political trouble came on Oct. 10, when RedState, a conservative website owned by Salem Media Group, ran a story quoting Heslep saying on Facebook that his wife had been sleeping with a male staff member for at least a year.

RedState identified the man as a congressional aide. Hill denied the allegation, but the House Ethics Committee launched an investigation. House rules adopted last year bar members of Congress from having sexual relationships with subordinates.

More was coming. Joe Messina, a former Knight campaign advisor who hosts a syndicated conservative radio show, said he received an anonymous email with a Zip file packed with private text messages and nude photos of Hill. He got more by ordinary mail.

Steve Knight
Former campaign aides to Republican Steve Knight, a former Palmdale congressman, received nude photos of Rep. Katie Hill, and one of them posted them on conservative websites.
(Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

He decided to write about it on his blog, but said he first notified the National Republican Congressional Committee to check whether anyone there knew about the material.

On Oct. 17, he posted a story saying he’d “received over 700 images, pictures, texts, and notes on the escapades of one Katie Hill, both before and after her election.”

“Pictures I’ve seen show her in sexual situations” with a woman on her 2018 campaign staff, Messina wrote. He did not publish any of the texts or photos and said he didn’t share them with anyone.

“I didn’t have to give them away,” he told The Times. “They were all over the place.”

NRCC spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair said the committee “never shopped, possessed or circulated photos of Congresswoman Hill.”

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“We didn’t see the photos until they were published, just like everyone else,” she said.

The day after Messina’s post, RedState published an article by another former Knight campaign advisor, Jennifer Van Laar of Simi Valley. Her story included private texts and intimate photos of Hill and her female campaign aide. One of the pictures shows Hill naked.

Van Laar wrote that Hill and Heslep were involved in a three-way relationship with the woman.

The next blow came on Oct. 24. Van Laar’s byline appeared again, this time on a lengthier article for the Daily Mail with more nude photos and Hill’s private text messages.

Neither of Van Laar’s articles disclosed that she worked for Knight’s 2014 campaign for Congress.

California’s sorely diminished Republican Party has few footholds left in Los Angeles County, and it risks losing its biggest one in the midterm election on Tuesday: the House seat of Rep.

The stories also did not mention that Van Laar agreed to work for congressional candidate Suzette Martinez Valladares when Valladares was running to unseat Hill in the 2020 election. (Valladares is now campaigning instead for state Assembly.)

On Twitter, Van Laar, who does political work under the name Jennifer Knight (no relation to the former congressman), is open about being a partisan.

“I don’t hide it and I don’t act unbiased,” she tweeted this week.

Van Laar also wrote on Twitter that she would support Knight’s 2020 campaign “in a heartbeat” if he gets in the race.

“We can take this back — it’ll take work and volunteers but we can do it!” she tweeted.

Van Laar declined to be interviewed.

Knight did not answer requests for an interview, but he issued a public statement Thursday that said neither he nor anyone involved in his 2018 reelection campaign against Hill “had any contact with her husband or anything to do with the release of private information about her.” He did not deny that Van Laar and Messina had worked for his previous congressional campaigns.

On Wednesday, Heslep’s father, Fred, defended his son, saying he did not release the images. “He was hacked, is what he said,” Fred Heslep told BuzzFeed News. “I think he started having computer issues, so that’s what made him think it was a hacking.”

Hill has apologized for having a sexual relationship with a campaign aide.

“I know that even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate, but I still allowed it to happen despite my better judgment,” she said.

Katie Hill
Katie Hill speaks to supporters last year at her election night celebration in Santa Clarita.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

She also said she’d reported the photos’ release to the U.S. Capitol Police and hoped whoever distributed them is “punished to the full extent of the law.”

“I am going through a divorce from an abusive husband who seems determined to try to humiliate me,” she said in a statement addressing the ethics inquiry. “I am disgusted that my opponents would seek to exploit such a private matter for political gain. This coordinated effort to try to destroy me and the people close to me is despicable and will not succeed.”

Sharing private, nude photos of people without their consent and to inflict harm is illegal in many states and in Washington, D.C.

California’s law, which took effect in 2013, forbids the intentional sharing of such images when “the person distributing the image knows or should know that distribution of the image will cause serious emotional distress, and the person depicted suffers that distress.”

Hill’s lawyers demanded that the Daily Mail take down the nude photos, but they were still online Thursday. A spokesperson for the Daily Mail did not respond to a request for comment.

Hill worried that more compromising photos would emerge if she stayed in Congress. She feared “what might come next and how much it will hurt.”

In her farewell speech on the House floor Thursday, Hill said that she had not left her apartment since the photos were published more than a week ago.

“I’ve hidden from the world, because I am terrified of facing all the people I let down,” she said.

She hinted that she would not be long out of the spotlight: “Thank you, and I yield the balance of my time for now, but not forever.”


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