Political observers: Attorney General Curtis Hill could survive allegations of groping

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill is taking heat for allegations that he inappropriately touched four women—including a state lawmaker—but political observers say he could survive a call for his resignation.

For his part, Hill said on Tuesday that he intended to stay in his position.

"Let me be clear, I am not resigning my position as Attorney General," Hill said in a media statement. "The people of the State of Indiana have given me the highest honor to have elected me with overwhelming support to the position of Attorney General. I will continue to honor my commitment to the citizens of this great state.”

The Indianapolis Star reported Monday that an eight-page memo written by law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister says Hill inappropriately touched a female state lawmaker and three legislative staffers at a party at AJ’s Lounge after the legislative session ended on March 15. Two of the women, including the lawmaker, said the contact included Hill's running one or two hands down their backs and grabbing their buttocks.

Comments from other female legislative employees that are included in the memo accuse Hill of suggesting they “show a little skin” or more leg to get free drinks or faster service at the bar.

The memo from Taft Stettinius & Hollister was prepared at the request of legislative leaders, the Star reported.

Hill, a staunch social conservative who is married, called the allegations "vicious" and said there was a "fundamental lack of fairness to this entire process."

"At no time was my behavior inappropriate nor did I touch anyone in an inappropriate manner," Hill said in a statement. He also said he was never contacted by an investigator and that he hasn't "been informed of who made these allegations."

However, legislative leaders have said in a joint statement that their investigation was completed and "the matter has been addressed with the Attorney General to the satisfaction of the employees involved."

They declined further comment on Tuesday.

Indiana Republican Party Chairman Kyle Hupfer issued a statement late Monday night that said the party has “zero tolerance for sexual harassment” and that “actions like these alleged have no place in public life or anywhere else.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb released a statement Tuesday morning that said he’s in a remote area of Montana and has limited access to information about the accusations.

“We took great care to update our sexual harassment policies for the executive, legislative and judicial branches in the past few months,” Holcomb said in the statement. “No one should be subjected to unwanted sexual advances. I commend House and Senate leaders for their immediate and formal follow up to the allegations presented to them. I’ll return to Indianapolis late tomorrow night. Until I’ve reviewed the facts in detail, I will have no further comment.”

The Indiana Democratic Party, meanwhile, has called for Hill to resign.

“We believe the multiple allegations against the Attorney General are serious, and raise material doubts over whether he can effectively carry out the duties of his office,” Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said in a statement.

But, for now, political experts say, it appears Hill could overcome the controversy.

“I think right now it’s becoming more difficult to predict [what will happen],” said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. “There’s little in the law that would force retirement or resignation.”

Paul Helmke, former three-term Republican mayor of Fort Wayne and professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said unless Hill admits the allegations are true, he will probably try to ride out the storm, like many other politicians accused of inappropriate physical contact, including President Donald Trump.

“A lot of them try to hang on as long as they can to see if it goes away,” Helmke said. “Especially if they denied it ever happened.”

Helmke also mentioned that the timing of the news—two days before a holiday—may work in Hill’s favor because people aren’t paying as much attention.

“My guess is he’s going to see how this plays out over the next week or so,” Helmke said. “If he were up for re-election this year, I think there’d be a little more pressure on him.”

But even if the issue quietly starts to fade, Helmke and Downs said it could easily resurface if more women come forward with accusations or if female candidates on the campaign trail this year make it a talking point.

“If he doesn’t resign, it doesn't mean this is resolved,” Helmke said. “It might just mean it’s continued to another day.”

Potential disciplinary action also could keep the issue in the limelight.

Indiana University McKinney School of Law professor Jennifer Drobac said the allegations fall within the purview of the Indiana Disciplinary Commission, which is a branch of the Indiana Supreme Court.

Drobac said the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct require lawyers to report other lawyers who they know have engaged or who they believe have engaged in unethical conduct. And she argues that the claims made against Hill should be considered unethical conduct.

That means any lawyer who knew something about the accusations is required to report it.

“It’s an ethics violation for a lawyer not to report an ethics violation,” Drobac said. “Lawyers who knew about allegations involving A.G. Hill would have or had an ethical duty under rule 8.3 to report A.G. Hill to the appropriate authority, and I would argue the appropriate authority is the Indiana Disciplinary Commission.”

A spokeswoman for the disciplinary commission told IBJ that complaints filed against attorneys that have not resulted in formal ethical charges are not made public. The commission has not filed formal ethical charges against Hill.

Hill, a former Elkhart prosecutor, won election in 2016 and became the single greatest vote-getter in Indiana history. He’s considered to be a rising star in the Republican party. In May, he warmed up the crowd at a rally for President Donald Trump in Hill’s native Elkhart, and he has visited the White House several times since Trump took office.

He will be up for re-election in 2020, and the issue could resurface if he runs for re-election or any other office.

“It becomes a pretty negative knock against him,” Downs said. “There’s no other way to spin it.”

But would it be enough for him to lose an election? Maybe, maybe not, Downs said. If he’s in a hotly contested race against a female candidate, it may play a large role. But if he doesn’t face a strong opponent, it might not do much damage.

“He’ll probably have to continue to address it, but it’s certainly something he can overcome,” Downs said. “At this point, it is one event. There are an awful lot of people who will forgive one transgression.”

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