Hill takes stand in discipline case; ex-colleague recalls crude sexual advances

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill has taken the stand in his attorney discipline action, beginning testimony Wednesday in a case that could jeopardize his law license. 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, when he allegedly groped and/or inappropriately touched State Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, legislative staffers Gabrielle McLemore Brock and Samantha Lozano, and former legislative aid Niki DaSilva at a legislative party.

Reardon testified Monday that after Hill groped her, she confronted him about his behavior toward her and told at least one other person at the party that the AG 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 sine die party, and from House Speaker Brian Bosma and former Senate President Pro Tem David Long.

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 sine die 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. 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 sine die 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 this 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 groping 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 sine die 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 sine die party existed 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 sine die 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 sine die party, Robinson said it wasn’t much more than 60 people.

Conway, however, recalled the bar being “pretty crowded,” to the point where he had to wiggle his way up to the bar top to get a drink. He also testified to seeing 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.

Though Hill has taken the stand, the prosecution is expected to recess again after the Wednesday lunch break to allow the defense to call a few more witnesses. Hill will then resume his testimony.

Check back with theindianalawyer.com for updates.

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