Congress

Rep. Duncan Hunter’s affairs with congressional staff raise sexual harassment concerns

California Republican denies groping another staffer at a 2014 event

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., allegedly entered into affairs with two congressional staffers, according to a court filing by the Department of Justice. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republican Party leaders have demurred on whether Rep. Duncan Hunter should resign in light of revelations that he pursued relationships with two congressional staffers, including one of his own aides.

But that does not mean allegations that the California Republican had “intimate relationships” — as U.S. attorneys described them in a recent court filing — with two staffers, including a direct subordinate, will not trigger consequences on Capitol Hill.

Hunter began a romantic relationship with one of his staffers not long after she joined his office in January 2015, according to the Justice Department. And he had a three-year relationship with an aide to another lawmaker in congressional Republican leadership after they met at the Republican National Convention in 2012.

The relationships were revealed Monday in a motion filed in federal court in San Diego in connection with Hunter’s upcoming trial on felony charges, alleging he misused campaign funds for personal expenses.

Hunter dipped into campaign coffers to pay for drinks out, couples’ trips and Uber rides from the women’s homes to his congressional office, prosecutors say.

A third congressional staffer, Rory Riley-Topping, who at the time was an aide to the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee, told RT America on Wednesday that Hunter groped her while visibly intoxicated at an event in 2014.

"Rory hopes that Congressman Hunter can get himself the help that he needs. Congressional staff deserve better. The people of the San Diego area deserve better. America deserves better," her spokesman said in a statement Friday.

Two friends of Riley-Topping said in interviews with Roll Call that she described the incident to them soon after it happened in 2014.

Riley-Topping’s husband said in a tweet that she told him about Hunter’s behavior the same night.

“We had the same discussion so many families have about whether reporting it would make any difference,” he said.

On Thursday, Hunter said the story was “baloney.”

The House Ethics Committee declined to comment on whether it plans to open an investigation into allegation of sexual harassment, and whether Hunter’s apparently consensual relationships violated House rules. Ethics panels in Congress routinely defer to the Justice Department when criminal charges are involved.

In its most recent public statement about the Hunter case, from May, the committee said that it had established an investigative subcommittee to review his conduct, but that the DOJ requested that it defer consideration of the charges involving misappropriation of campaign funds.

The initiation of both relationships predate a 2018 law that amended the House’s code of conduct to prohibit members of Congress from dating subordinates, among other measures aimed at reducing sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.

But Hunter’s behavior still raises ethical concerns, experts say.

“When you have big power disparities like that … when you are in a position of power over someone’s livelihood, over their career opportunities, consent can get pretty muddy,” said Emily Martin, a vice president at the National Women’s Law Center and an adviser to Congress on the 2018 update to the rules.

“For me, these concerns are heightened when it comes to Congress, because if you’re a member of Congress, you’re one of the most powerful people in the country,” Martin continued.

The first clause of the ethics code states that every member of the House “shall behave at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.”

The code of conduct has also long applied private sector employment discrimination laws, including sexual harassment laws, to Congress. And while not every company in the U.S. forbids relationships between bosses and their employees, it has been a common standard since the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

Hunter has been criticized by political rivals for abusing the power of a congressional office, and allegedly misappropriating campaign funds, to enter into relationships.

Duncan Hunter Jr. betrayed voters and family by illegally using campaign funds and the power of his office to initiate inappropriate relations in the workplace,” Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Democrat challenging Hunter for his 50th District seat, said in a statement Tuesday night.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise have not said whether Hunter should step down. 

The offices of McCarthy and Scalise did not reply to requests for comment about whether the groping allegation had changed their stance on the embattled congressman remaining in office.

Earlier this week, both McCarthy and Scalise said court proceedings should take their course. They emphasized that Hunter has already been booted from his committee assignments.

“He has a day in court... So the courts will decide,” said fellow McCarthy, a fellow Californian, told reporters Tuesday. “You’re always innocent until proven guilty.”

“I don’t like playing hypotheticals because you don’t know if this is going to turn out to be true or false, if it’s correct, if it did or didn’t happen,” Scalise added Tuesday. “It’s going to get resolved in the courts. I hope it gets resolved quickly.”

That sort of response makes Congress a more hazardous place to work, Martin said.

“Among other things, Congress is a workplace. And in other workplaces, we would not find it satisfactory for leadership to say, ‘We don’t have to do anything about violations of our rules or potential harassment or legal issues related to harassment. … We’ve got no responsibility here,’” Martin said. 

Asked if Congress should look into the allegations raised by prosecutors, Scalise also raised the possibility of an ethics investigation. 

“I know the House Ethics Committee plays roles oftentimes in these kind of allegations. I don’t know if they’re involved in this,” the Louisiana Republican said.

In 2017 and 2018, amid the #MeToo movement, several sexual harassment complaints by staffers against members of Congress surfaced. Accused lawmakers included Republican Reps. Patrick T. Meehan of Pennsylvania, Trent Franks of Arizona and Blake Farenthold of Texas and Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan. 

They faced pressure to resign, and all eventually stepped down. 

Lindsey McPherson and Chris Marquette contributed to this story. From the archives: Roll Call reporters discuss covering sexual harassment on the Hill in the #MeToo era

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