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Thursday, July 18, 2019 1:00 am

Hill wants judge to toss sexual harassment suit

TOM DAVIES | Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS – Lawyers for Indiana's attorney general are downplaying allegations he drunkenly groped four women during a party, arguing that the claims against him represent common behavior even if they are true.

They made their arguments in court documents submitted on behalf of Republican state Attorney General Curtis Hill, calling for a judge to throw out the federal lawsuit the women filed against him last month alleging sexual harassment and defamation by Hill.

Hill is accused of touching the backs or backsides of a state lawmaker and three legislative staffers in March 2018 at an Indianapolis bar where a party was being held to celebrate the end of the legislative session. He has rebuffed calls from Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and other state officials to resign, but he also faces an upcoming state disciplinary hearing that could threaten his law license.

Hill's lawyers argue in court filings dated July 11 that the women don't have a valid case for sexual harassment under federal law because they all work for state government's legislative branch while Hill is an elected officer of the executive branch.

“His activities in the crowded bar can hardly be characterized as the 'misuse of power' conferred by 'state law,' ” the attorneys hired by Hill to represent him wrote in response to the allegations. “They were not in furtherance of any duty, obligation or power he possesses as Indiana Attorney General. If believed, the allegations focus on the activities of a partygoer late at night, which is the type of behavior that occurs in bars after midnight.”

The lawsuit names the state and Hill – both individually and in his capacity as the attorney general – as defendants.

The attorney general's office argued the lawsuit's claims of civil rights violations on the part of the state should be dismissed, partly because state law excludes the women's jobs in the legislative branch from the state's civil service system.

Lawyers for the women declined to comment Wednesday on Hill's court filings. A federal magistrate judge has scheduled a Sept. 13 telephone conference with lawyers regarding the lawsuit.

Hill, a former Elkhart County prosecutor who was elected in 2016 to a term that runs through the end of 2020, called the women's allegations “vicious and false” during a news conference shortly after they became public last summer.

The women – Democratic Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon of Munster, a Republican legislative staffer and two Democratic legislative aides – maintain that Hill's comments to reporters and in social media posts defamed the women and hurt their professional reputations. Their lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages from the state and Hill personally, an apology from Hill for his denials and an injunction ordering the state to adopt tougher sexual harassment policies.

A special prosecutor, who declined to pursue criminal charges against Hill last year, noted that Hill didn't deny the touching occurred, with the attorney general describing it as “incidental ... in the crowded bar” and “not intended to be disrespectful, sexual in nature or rude.”

A separate state inspector general's report cited eyewitnesses who called Hill's behavior inappropriate and “creepy” but said he didn't break any state ethics rules.

Hill's lawyers with the Hammond-based firm Eichhorn & Eichhorn argue the allegations don't meet the legal standards for federal civil rights violations.

“The alleged conduct is no different than that which might occur in bars anywhere,” they wrote. “This is no federal case simply because Mr. Hill was the Indiana Attorney General, and there has been no federal right infringed.”

Hill faces an October hearing on the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission's allegations that he committed professional misconduct at the party, which could lead to actions ranging from reprimands to his disbarment as an attorney.