Despite lost support, AG Hill seemingly pushes forward

Statewide political leaders, including Republican leaders, are withdrawing support of embattled Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, who next week begins a 30-day suspension for two ethics violations. But Hill so far has not indicated plans to step down from his role or leave the 2020 campaign trail once the suspension is over, even though his competition may be growing.

The Republican AG on Monday received the 30-day suspension with automatic reinstatement from the Indiana Supreme Court, which unanimously found that he violated Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct 8.4(b) and (d).  Those violations stem from nearly-two-year-old allegations that Hill drunkenly groped four women in March 2018: Democratic State Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon and current and former legislative staffers Gabrielle McLemore Brock, Niki DaSilva and Samantha Lozano.

The suspension means Hill, who’s had no prior discipline, cannot practice from May 18 until June 17. During that time, he has said his chief deputy, Aaron Negangard, will oversee the Office of the Attorney General. But that was cast into doubt Tuesday, when Gov. Eric Holcomb moved to intervene in Hill’s attorney discipline case, asking the court to clarify whether Hill’s suspension created a vacancy in the office. A ruling in Holcomb’s favor could permit him to appoint a successor attorney general.

“I accept with humility and respect the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling of a 30-day suspension of my license with automatic reinstatement,” Hill said in a statement Monday. “… I offer my deepest gratitude to my family, friends and the entire staff of the Office of the Attorney General. My staff has worked tirelessly and without interruption and will continue to do so on behalf of all Hoosiers.”

If and when Hill returns to office, though, it’s unclear what the future holds for the longtime prosecutor.

In November, Hill entered the already-crowded 2020 race for attorney general, coming alongside Indianapolis attorney John Westercamp in seeking the GOP nomination. 

Former Revenue Commissioner Adam Krupp was briefly in the Republican race, but he dropped out last month and put his support behind Decatur County Prosecutor Nate Harter, a one-time Hill supporter now seeking the nomination to run as the Republican AG candidate in November.

The Indiana Republican Party will select its nominee at its convention next month. Up to this point, party leaders have stayed mum on the disciplinary action clouding Hill’s campaign and have declined to endorse — or not endorse — any of the three candidates.

That changed, however, when Hill’s suspension came down.

“Hoosiers would be best served by having a new attorney general,” GOP Chair Kyle Hupfer said in a statement Monday, though he did not specifically endorse a candidate. “I have faith in our delegates.”

Harter — who was the person who put Hill’s name forward to become the Republican attorney general candidate in 2016 — said Monday that the Supreme Court’s order “reflects the unavoidable fact that my friend Curtis Hill has lost the trust of Hoosiers and has compromised his ability to do the important work we deserve.”

Westercamp was more reserved in his response, saying the discipline order “doesn’t change the focus of my campaign — bringing broad-based, private-sector experience to the office, fighting government overreach, and eliminating unnecessary office spending.”

Now, former Indiana Rep. Todd Rokita says he is seriously considering throwing his hat in the GOP ring.

“Our incumbent is very badly wounded,” Rokita said in a statement posted to Facebook. “This is no longer conjecture, or something just contrived by Curtis’ political enemies. This is reality as delivered by the highest impartial third party in the state — the Supreme Court.

“There is too much at stake for us not to consider other alternatives for our state’s top lawyer,” Rokita said, referencing the possibility of a Democrat taking the office. “… My family and I will be deciding in the next several days how I can best contribute to keeping our party, our state, strong.”

Indiana Lawyer submitted questions to Hill’s campaign regarding his reelection bid, asking whether the impending suspension, Harter’s entrance into the race or Hupfer’s comments had led the incumbent to consider leaving the campaign trail. A staffer said Hill’s team was not immediately available to respond.

On the Democratic side, State Sen. Karen Tallian and former Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel are competing for their party’s AG nomination. Both noted the suspension will end in time for Hill’s name to be put forward at the GOP convention.

“This needs to end. And I can make that happen,” Tallian said in a statement posted to Twitter. “Now, it is even more imperative that Indiana women, and Indiana men who support them, must say no. Now, more than ever, we need a strong woman to be the nominee for attorney general. His infamous behavior was unacceptable, and we need to send a clear message that sexual harassment and battery are never acceptable.”

Weinzapfel likewise said Hill’s conduct toward the four women is “as undeniable as it is inexcusable.”

“He has embarrassed himself and the office which he holds,” Weinzapfel continued. “It is now up to the voters to hold him accountable and I will work every day through November to make sure that happens.”

The Indiana Democratic Party offered harsher words for Hill, calling him a “disgrace” and criticizing the GOP for failing to remove him from office.

“His conduct as an elected official was repulsive and will be a lasting stain on the office and the party he serves,” Lauren Ganapini, executive director of the Indiana Democratic Party, said in a statement. “Now the uncertainty created by his punishment could tip the state into a constitutional crisis.”

When the groping allegations became public in July 2018, then-House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and then Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne, called on Hill to resign. But their successors have been less outspoken, with Sen. Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, declining to comment and Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, not responding to a request for comment.

The leaders of the minority caucuses, however, have been more outspoken.

“While I am pleased that Attorney General Hill will finally face consequences for the disgraceful actions he committed more than two years ago, I can’t help but feel this punishment is mild given the Court’s finding that Hill committed battery against a legislator and multiple legislative staff members,” House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said in a Monday statement. “As I have stated many times before, I continue to believe that Attorney General Hill should resign from his post, given his actions and his betrayal of the public trust as Indiana’s top law enforcement officer. (Monday’s) decision now leaves Indiana in a legal quagmire, where the Attorney General’s ability to hold public office remains in question.”

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, an Anderson Democrat, likewise repeated his initial call for Hill’s resignation and pointed to the “host of unresolved legal issues as to the legality and operation of the office of Attorney General… .”

“In addition, the ruling points out one thing clearly: All of this occurred because of Curtis Hill’s poor decision-making and deplorable actions.”

Legislation was introduced in the General Assembly this year that would have disqualified any lawyer who had been disbarred or suspended for at least 30 days from being attorney general. Likewise, any lawyer who was disbarred or suspended for at least 30 days could not run for the office.

That legislation, however, died on the last night of the 2020 session of the Indiana General Assembly. 

Former Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, Hill’s predecessor, told Indiana Lawyer the question of Hill’s eligibility to serve rests with the state Supreme Court, not the General Assembly. State statute requires the AG to be a lawyer in “good standing,” and it is up to the courts to determine what “good standing” means in the statutory context.

“When I was elected as the state’s attorney general, I felt a higher responsibility to uphold not only the professional requirement of the office but also to my demeanor so that I didn’t reduce the reputation of that office that I was elected to maintain,” Zoeller added.

The Indiana Supreme Court’s disciplinary order gave no guidance on what the suspension means for Hill’s ability to remain in office.

Holcomb, a fellow Republican, told reporters Monday that he was looking into the authority he has to respond to the suspension. Holcomb was among those who called for Hill’s resignation in 2018, and he said Monday his position has not changed.

Asked whether he would appoint a replacement AG, Holcomb said he was seeking a quick turnaround of his legal team’s research into what executive authority he has in this situation.

“With this current decision, it has led to another set of questions that I am seeking guidance and answers to,” the governor said. “We won’t allow grass to grow underneath as we get those answers.”

The attorney discipline case, begun in March 2019, is not the only repercussion Hill has faced from the groping allegations.

In 2018, he was the subject of a criminal and ethical investigation by a special prosecutor and the Indiana inspector general. Though special prosecutor Dan Sigler said he believed the women, he declined to bring criminal charges.

The women have also sought redress in the form of a federal civil lawsuit. The case was filed in 2019,  and the plaintiffs are represented by JBJ Legal attorneys Hannah Joseph, B.J. Brinkerhoff and Kim Jeselskis.

Hill’s accusers and their lawyers declined interviews, but the lawyers did release a statement saying they were “pleased” with the Supreme Court’s finding that Hill committed misdemeanor battery against their clients.

“The discipline issued (Monday) by the Indiana Supreme Court and the confirmation of Hearing Officer (Myra) Selby’s factual findings again establish, without question, our (clients’) credibility, and the legal significance of their accounts,” the attorneys said in a joint statement. “Two years later, Representative Candelaria Reardon, Ms. DaSilva, Ms. McLemore Brock, and Ms. Lozano continue to deal with the effects of going public with their stories, but remain steadfast in their commitment to help Hoosiers feel safe in the workplace.”

Those “effects” have included workplace intimidation, discrimination and harassment, the women argue in their civil suit.

Indiana Southern District Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson dismissed the first amended complaint in March, finding the state of Indiana was not an appropriate defendant against the plaintiffs’ Title VII claims. Additionally, claims under the Equal Protection and Substantive Due Process clauses brought against Hill in his official and individual capacity were not cognizable.

Magnus-Stinson also declined to exercise jurisdiction over the women’s state-law claims, including battery, defamation and invasion of privacy. But she dismissed those allegations without prejudice with leave to refile in state court.

But the women instead chose to file a second amended complaint naming the Indiana House and Indiana Senate as defendants for the Title VII allegations. Hill was also named as a defendant in his individual capacity for the state-law claims.

Hill’s legal team has already moved to dismiss the second amended complaint, arguing the women did not seek leave to file it. His defense has also moved for sanctions — including dismissal of the state-law claims with prejudice and the award of attorney fees — on similar grounds.

The federal case is DaSilva, et al. v. Indiana House, et al., 1:19-cv-2453.

The discipline case is In the Matter of Curtis T. Hill, Jr., 19S-DI-156.

IL senior reporter Marilyn Odendahl and reporter Katie Stancombe contributed to this report. For more on the disciplinary action against Hill, read the May 13 edition of Indiana Lawyer.

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