The salacious news articles and photos that prompted Congresswoman Katie Hill to announce her resignation on October 27 were published under the byline of a Simi Valley woman who has worked on the campaigns of at least two of Hill’s Republican political opponents.
The reporter, Jennifer Van Laar, was reportedly a campaign advisor to former Congressman Steve Knight, unseated by Hill a year ago. A story co-authored by Van Laar appeared in the Daily Mail on October 24 featuring nude photos of Hill with a female campaign staffer. This followed a series of reports published on RedState.com, a right-wing political site that lists Van Laar as its “deputy managing editor.” In the articles, Van Laar did not mention that she had worked on Knight’s 2014 campaign for Congress.
According to a campaign spokesperson, Van Laar also worked as a volunteer for Republican Suzette Martinez Valladares’s brief bid to unseat Hill in the 2020 election. (Valladares dropped out of the race and is now campaigning for the State Assembly.) In an August 5 email, Van Laar had indicated she would be acting as Valladares’s campaign manager.
On October 27, Rep. Hill announced her plan to step down, saying she feared the more damaging photos would emerge if she remained in Congress. Within hours of the announcement, Van Laar tweeted her support to a Republican who was already running for Hill’s seat. “If you want to help us flip @katieHill4CA’s former #CA25 seat BACK to RED, please learn more about @MikeGarcia2020 and contribute to his campaign at ElectMikeGarcia.com!” she wrote. A spokesman for the Garcia campaign said that Van Laar is not employed by the campaign.
If you want to help us flip @KatieHill4CA's former #CA25 seat BACK to RED, please learn more about @MikeGarcia2020 and contribute to his campaign at https://t.co/OX9KiZOopN! Fortunately we already have a strong GOP candidate here. @KurtSchlichter @RealSaavedra @DonaldJTrumpJr
— Jennifer Van Laar (@jenvanlaar) October 28, 2019
Van Laar also tweeted that she’d get behind King “in a heartbeat” if he decides to run for Hill’s seat. On Sunday, the day Hill announced her resignation, Knight threw his hat in the race.
How the nude photos of Hill ended up in the hands of a hardened Republican operative like Van Laar, is not yet known with certainty. But Hill, the first openly bisexual member of Congress, laid blame at the feet of her estranged husband, Kenny Heslep, who, Hill said, “seems determined to try to humiliate me.”
Heslep and Hill are going through a divorce. In September, Heslep posted to Facebook a claim that Hill was having an affair with her male legislative director. The House Ethics Committee later opened an investigation into the allegation, which Hill denies. Hill said she resigned in part to spare friends “the pain inflicted by my abusive husband and the brutality of hateful political operatives.”
On September 27, Stephen Daniels, host of The Talk of Santa Clarita, a local politics podcast, received an ominous Facebook message from Heslep: “Any interest in an interview, and the whole story yet?” the message reads. Daniels declined Heslep’s offer, telling him that the impeachment inquiry of President Trump, which Hill had backed on September 24, took precedence for him over the couple’s marital problems. Heslep responded: “screen caps of this conversation to be making an appearance soon!” Heslep did not return a message left on his cell phone.
By mid-October, prominent Republican foes of Hill’s were in possession of a cache of intimate photos of the congresswoman.
Joe Messina, the conservative host of a syndicated radio show who lives in the Santa Clarita area, says he notified the National Republican Congressional Committee that he had received what he would later describe in a web post as “700 images, pictures, texts and notes on the escapades of one Katie Hill, both before and after her election.”
He added, “Pictures I’ve seen show her in sexual situations with her female finance campaign staff member. Text messages confirm that they were in a ‘relationship’ (while still married).”
Messina published his web post on October 17, but did not include photos of Hill and says he did not share them with anyone. He declined to identify the source of the material.
The same day, George Papadopoulos, the former Donald Trump campaign aide who pleaded guilty in the special counsel investigation, posted a cryptic tweet on Twitter about Hill’s district being “for the taking.” On October 29, Papadopoulos announced he will get in the race for the seat vacated by Hill.
The next day, the photos were published with an article by Van Laar for RedState.com. Van Laar, who has of yesterday had been evacuated due to the Easy fire, did not respond to a request for comment. She has been sparring with critics online and reposting vitriolic comments critical of her role in Hill’s resignation.
Van Laar is no stranger to controversy, even in the Republican political circles she frequents. In 2016, days before the general election, she publicly accused Dante Acosta, a Republican member of the State Assembly, of sending her sexually inappropriate messages and propositioning her. Acosta denied the accusations and provided screenshots of his text messages with Van Laar which showed that, months after the alleged harassment, she had solicited Acosta about work with his campaign, and had gone to work for his opponent after he refused her. When the L.A. Times asked her for copies of the inappropriate texts, she declined. She also claimed the screenshots Acosta provided had been altered.
Doug Mirell, a lawyer who has studied California’s criminal revenge porn statute, says that what befell Hill was clearly a crime under the revenge porn law. Though the law carves out an exception for media organizations, he says, whoever leaked the photos to the media could also be liable for civil penalties.
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