Lobbyist defends Hill in sometimes-contentious disciplinary hearing

The lobbyist who took Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill to a March 2018 legislative party defended Hill in his legal ethics case, telling a disciplinary hearing officer Wednesday that he knows when a man is “hitting on” a woman, and Hill was not.

Tony Samuel, president of Samuel Solutions Group, was with Hill and others on the night of March 14, 2018, sharing drinks and appetizers with the attorney general at multiple restaurants. Then, after midnight, the group traveled to AJ’s Lounge, 1118 S. Meridian St., where Hill is accused of groping four women: State Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, legislative staffers Gabrielle McLemore Brock and Samantha Lozano, and former legislative aid Niki DaSilva.

Reardon testified Monday that Hill groped her and she confronted him and his behavior. She said she told at least one person at the party that Hill was a “creeper.” The prosecution on Monday also called as witnesses Hill’s other accusers, followed by testimony Tuesday from legislative staffers who attended the after-session party, and from House Speaker Brian Bosma and former Senate President Pro Tem David Long.

Hill briefly took the stand as a commission witness Wednesday.

Samuel said he and Hill were friends in March 2018, but have since become “good friends.” Samuel said on cross-examination that he was better friends with Reardon at the time of the party.

Throughout the night, Hill was loose, friendly and in a good mood, Samuel said. He might have been “slightly intoxicated,” but no more than any other person who’d had three to four drinks would be. Samuel estimated that he was with Hill 25% to 50% of their time at AJ’s.

Generally, Hill is a friendly and gregarious person with a big personality who likes people and who people like in return, Samuel said.

Samuel testified that there were 100 to 200 people at AJ’s—among the highest crowd estimates given during the evidentiary hearing—but he never saw Hill behave inappropriately toward any of the people there. Had Hill been offensive, Samuel said someone would have told him about it that night, because people knew Hill had accompanied him to the party.

Samuel’s direct testimony, run by defense attorney Jim Voyles, was relatively short, but he was on the stand longer for a sometimes-contentious cross-examination by disciplinary commission attorney Seth Pruden.

Pruden focused a small part of his questioning on the party, with Samuel telling him that Hill was not “drunk.” Yes, he’d been drinking, but on the drive home, Hill was holding a normal conversation and not slurring his words, the lobbyist said.

The larger portion of Samuel’s cross-examination focused on his role in Hill’s response to the sexual misconduct allegations once they became public. When the accusations were first reported, Samuel said he was shocked and ticked off, because what was being alleged was not what he had seen.

As the person who had invited Hill to the party, Samuel said he was asked to speak publicly about what had happened in the early morning hours of March 15. However, on the advice of Voyles–and later on the advice of his own attorney–Samuel decided not to issue a public response.

But, according to Pruden’s line of questioning, Samuel was still involved in the public responses others gave after the accusations came to light in July 2018. The commission attorney pointed to multiple email chains with draft press releases, op-eds and the like intended for release.

Also included on those email chains were Aaron Negangard, Hill’s chief deputy attorney general; Linda Chezem, a former Indiana Court of Appeals judge and vocal Hill supporter; and Jim Bopp, a prominent conservative attorney who has represented Hill. Media consultants and other legal figures were likewise included at times.

Pruden homed in on a particular email that contained a draft of an op-ed Chezem planned to release in support of Hill. In the email, Chezem is asked to review the draft and reframe it in her tone, while notes are made about eliminating “belligerent” or “bombastic” language.

The commission attorney contrasted that email with one sent by DaSilva to a friend that contained a draft of DaSilva’s public statement. The friend had previously worked in the Office of the Attorney General, but because she was no longer with the OAG when DaSilva sent the email, it bounced and ended up in Hill’s hands.

In her message, DaSilva asked the friend for comments on grammatical errors and phrases that needed to be corrected, strengthened and/or eliminated. After the email bounced, Hill released it publicly as evidence that his accusers were “coordinating” their stories against him.

During cross-examination, Pruden pointed to an email chain titled “first draft to expose DaSilva coordination.”

Looking first to the email regarding Chezem’s public comments, Pruden asked Samuel if it was inappropriate for multiple people to review drafts of a message intended for public release. Samuel did not answer the question directly, instead saying there was a difference between the goal of the Chezem email and the goal of DaSilva’s email.

DaSilva is an accuser, he said, so only she can know what happened to her. Thus, others’ input is not needed. Contrast that with an “innocent” person such as Hill, who would want help in coordinating a response to false accusations, Samuel said.

The lobbyist pointed to DaSilva’s use of the words “phrases” and “strengthened” in further support of his theory that there was a legitimate belief that the accusers were coordinating their stories.

During Samuel’s cross-examination, he and attorneys sometimes talked over each other. The first instance was when Samuel was discussing why he thinks the accusations against Hill are untrue.

According to Samuel, if Hill had wanted “sexual gratification,” as has been alleged, there would have been more to his actions than a back rub. Asked how he knew that, Samuel pointed to “life experience” of going to bars.

The defense began to object to that line of questioning, but Pruden told hearing officer Myra Selby that his questions were intended to show whether Samuel’s testimony was influenced by his friendship with Hill. Samuel denied that he was influenced, Voyles moved to strike the comment and Pruden rephrased his statement as possible witness “bias.”

Selby told Pruden not to make inferences that went deeper than the question and testimony.

The second contentious moment came at the end of cross-examination, when Samuel said he had declined to appear on some episodes of the political show IN Focus if the Hill accusations were to be a topic of discussion. If Samuel did appear and Hill was discussed, he said he would not participate in the discussion.

But Pruden pointed to a November 2018 episode of IN Focus, when Samuel did make an “unplanned” remark about the accusations. On that episode, the panelists were discussing a Statehouse incident in which Reardon yelled, during a Hill press conference, “Resign! Resign!”

“It’s a little unfortunate that these folks, the accusers–and remember he was cleared of these charges–are now appearing unhinged as far as I can see,” the lobbyist said on the show.

Samuel tried multiple times to explain his comments, but Pruden repeatedly asked Selby to silence him. Selby told Samuel at least twice that he had to wait for a question before he could speak, and Pruden emphasized that his question was only whether Samuel had appeared on the show and made the comment, not what the context was.

When Samuel was dismissed as a witness, he asked Selby if he could explain his comments. The hearing officer told him no.

Also on Wednesday afternoon, the defense called as witnesses Republican State Reps. Alan Morrison and Jim Lucas. Both attended the party, and both said Hill did not draw their attention as being overly intoxicated or inappropriate.

The defense also called Logan Harrison, an Anthem attorney to whom Reardon complained about Hill immediately after he allegedly groped her. Harrison is the one she made the “creeper” comment to, according to Reardon.

Harrison recalled her comments, but did not see Hill touch Reardon. He also testified that Reardon was teaching other partygoers to salsa, though she has testified that she did not dance at the party.

Though Hill was called as a commission witness Wednesday morning, he did not return to the stand that afternoon. Instead, the commission admitted several exhibits of emails sent between Hill, his attorneys and his supporters after the allegations became public. The commission also admitted press statements and news articles.

The commission periodically recessed its case to allow defense witnesses to testify. The prosecution then rested after the admission of the exhibits.

Earlier on Wednesday:

The morning’s testimony also included allegations of unwanted sexual advances Hill made by a former employee of his office when he was Elkhart County prosecutor.

The beginning of Hill’s testimony was brief and did not touch on the night of March 15, 2018.

Rather than diving directly into the events of the party and the subsequent fallout, the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission focused on the role of the Office of the Attorney General.

Commission attorney Seth Pruden had Hill describe in detail the various sections of the OAG, such as consumer protection and professional licensing. Taking the office’s professional licensing work as an example, Pruden asked Hill whether it would be fair to say the OAG has involvement in the daily lives of Hoosiers.

Hill hedged in response, saying that while the office has a wide reach, he could not speak to its impact on every individual Hoosier. Pruden tried to give the example of regulation of a barber’s license, which he said would impact every man who gets a haircut.

“I shave my own head, sir,” Hill said in response.

Pruden then asked Hill about his relationship with a litany of people, most of whom have publicly featured in the saga surrounding the sexual misconduct allegations. Among the people Hill was asked about were Aaron Negangard, his chief deputy; Mary Beth Bonaventura, his chief of staff; Tony Samuel, the lobbyist who brought him to the party at AJ’s Lounge; Linda Chezem, a former Court of Appeals judge and outspoken Hill supporter; and Jim Bopp, a prominent Terre Haute attorney who has represented Hill privately.

Prior to Hill taking the stand, the commission called Kathleen Bowers, a victim advocate in the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office. Before becoming Indiana Attorney General, Hill was the elected Elkhart County prosecutor.

Bowers has worked for the prosecutor’s office twice in her career. Bowers testified that during her first employment with the office, from 1998 to 2007, Hill made inappropriate comments in the office, though an objection kept her from describing those comments.

Instead, Bowers’ testimony largely focused on an incident that occurred in her office on Dec. 23, 2016, just weeks before Hill would take statewide office.

Prior to that day, Bowers, a hobbyist dancer, had participated in a Dancing with the Stars-esque charity event in Elkhart. Bowers had been one of the “professional” dancers, while Hill had been a “celebrity” participant.

Following the event, Hill began asking Bowers for dance lessons, often saying he wanted a lesson for free. He also told her their dance should be “something hot.”

Then, on Dec. 23, Hill stopped by Bowers’ office and made the same request. However, Bowers testified that this conversation “crossed the line.”

After some “banter” about dance lessons, Bowers said she told Hill, “I don’t think we’re talking about dancing anymore.”

“Were we ever talking about dancing?” Bowers recalled as Hill’s response.

The conversation then became more openly about sex, she testified. Eventually, Hill told her, “We should f— because it would be hot.”

Bowers said she laughed in an attempt to joke her way out of the situation, and she recalled telling Hill that he and her husband were not friendly, so what Hill was suggesting “would not go well for her.”

Shortly thereafter, at Hill’s going-away party in Elkhart, Bowers recalled Hill pointing to a picture of him at the dancing event and telling her he had been with the “wrong partner” because he was not with her. Bowers said the sexual advances continued after Hill took office as attorney general, with him calling Bowers in 2017 and asking if she had thought any more about his proposition.

Bowers again refused, but Hill would call her one last time, on March 16, 2018–the day after the now infamous party. Hill left a voice message on Bowers’ office phone, and though the message was played in court, it could not be heard well in the back of the courtroom where media are positioned.

However, based on Bowers’ testimony, it became clear Wednesday that Hill’s intent in the message was to once again make a sexual advance toward her. Bowers testified that she returned the voicemail, and Hill asked a third time if she had reconsidered, this time in light of her recent divorce.

Bowers still declined, telling Hill, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.”

Hill’s defense noted on cross-examination that Bowers had never reported Hill’s remarks to any of her supervisors. On redirect, she explained the decision by saying she was afraid she would not be able to continue doing her job at the level she was at, that she would be shut out at work, or that she would have to leave her position entirely.

The defense team objected to the entirety of Bowers’ testimony at the outset on relevance grounds, noting she was not at AJ’s, the site of Hill’s alleged misbehavior as AG. Defense attorney Donald Lundberg said caselaw prevents the commission from trying to “dirty up” a respondent during disciplinary proceedings.

But commission attorney Angie Ordway said Bowers’ testimony would be relevant to any sanction Hill might receive, as her testimony could prove a pattern of misconduct. Hearing officer Myra Selby overruled the objection.

Earlier on Wednesday, the commission called Joan Blackwell, currently general counsel in the OAG, as a witness. Blackwell testified that she received a report in March 2018 from Emily Crisler, who was then a deputy attorney general.

Crisler testified on Tuesday that she had a conversation with a fellow OAG employee, Natalie Fields, who had spoken with DaSilva shortly after the party. DaSilva told Fields about Hill’s conduct—including a comment telling DaSilva and other women to “show a little skin” to get drinks at the bar—and Fields relayed that conversation to Crisler. Blackwell serves as the OAG’s ethics officer, and Crisler shared Fields’ account of DaSilva’s story with her.

Blackwell testified that she did not know the party took place when Crisler talked to her. But in a subsequent conversation with Hill, Blackwell learned of the party and that he had attended, a fact that surprised her because, she said, he is not an “after-hours guy.”

As she relayed Crisler’s account, Blackwell said Hill did not recall touching any women. As to the “show a little skin” comment, Blackwell said she interpreted it as a joke and a possible movie reference, based on her conversation with Hill.

Blackwell did not broach the issue with Hill after that initial conversation, she said, nor did Hill instruct her to conduct further investigation into what Crisler had said.

The prosecution briefly recessed after Bowers’ testimony to allow the prosecution to call three witnesses: Gwen Robinson, the owner of AJ’s, Michael Conway, a Senate Republicans staffer, and Rep. Ryan Hatfield, a Democrat who attended the party.

Robinson testified for the defense that Hill’s conduct on March 15 didn’t “stick out,” and no one reported his conduct to her. She also said she expects patrons to be respectful of one another, and she tries to watch for inappropriate conduct that might be disrespectful.

On cross-examination, Robinson said her bar has a 60-person capacity, and she would not knowingly exceed that capacity. Though multiple witnesses have testified that about 100 people were at the party, Robinson said it wasn’t much more than 60 people.

Conway, however, recalled the venue being “pretty crowded,” to the point where he had to wiggle his way up to the bar to get a drink. He also testified that he saw Reardon dancing — specifically “grinding”—with an intern, though Reardon testified Monday that she did not dance at the party.

Though Conway said he didn’t see Hill with Reardon or DaSilva, his former colleague, he did recall Hill seeming unsteady and unable to control his movements.

As he left, Conway drove Donna Smith, another legislative aide who testified Tuesday, to a nearby parking garage. Smith said Tuesday that she discussed Hill’s behavior that night with colleagues, but Conway said she did not bring it up during their drive.

Finally, Hatfield recalled Hill approaching the group Hatfield was with at AJ’s, which included lobbyist Laura McCaffrey. As McCaffrey testified on Tuesday, Hatfield said Hill approached the group, put his arms on the backs of two of the women and asked Hatfield, “Mr. Cool, how did you get to hang out with such pretty ladies?”

Hatfield said he didn’t see Hill commit any “unlawful” conduct, but the moment was awkward and one of the lobbyists was visibly uncomfortable. The Democratic representative also testified that he saw Hill “embrace” Reardon, but he could not see his hands on her back. He said Reardon did not seem to reciprocate the embrace.

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