Indiana attorney general's law license suspended for groping

TOM DAVIES
FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2019, file photo, Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill arrives for a hearing at the state Supreme Court at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. Hill's law license will be suspended for 30 days over an allegation that he drunkenly groped four women during a party, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday, May 11, 2020. The unanimous court decision said that the state's attorney disciplinary commission "proved by clear and convincing evidence that (Hill) committed the criminal act of battery." (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, who has sought national attention as an anti-abortion and tough-on-crime crusader, will have his law license suspended for 30 days over allegations that he drunkenly groped a state lawmaker and three other women during a party, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The unanimous court decision said that the state’s attorney disciplinary commission “proved by clear and convincing evidence that (Hill) committed the criminal act of battery.”

But the court gave the Republican attorney general a less serious punishment than a suspension of at least 60 days recommended by a hearing officer for his actions during a party marking the end of the 2018 legislative session.

Hill, who has resisted calls for his resignation from Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and other state GOP leaders, said in a statement he accepted the court’s decision with “humility and respect.” He named his chief deputy to oversee the attorney general’s office until his suspension ends June 17.

Hill’s statement released by his office made no mention of the allegations or the women who accused him of groping them.

“I offer my deepest gratitude to my family, friends and the entire staff of the Office of the Attorney General,” Hill said. “My staff has worked tirelessly and without interruption and will continue to do so on behalf of all Hoosiers.”

Hill has denied doing anything wrong, testifying during a hearing in October that he briefly touched Democratic Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon’s back while leaning in to hear what she was saying during the party and was startled to realize she was wearing a backless dress. Hill said “absolutely not” when asked whether he grabbed Reardon’s buttocks.

Reardon testified that Hill, smelling of alcohol and with glassy eyes, was holding a drink in his right hand and put his left hand on her shoulder, then slid his hand down her dress to clench her buttocks. “A squeeze, a firm grasp,” she said.

Hill, 59, also refuted testimony from three female legislative staffers — ages 23 to 26 at the time — that he inappropriately touched their backs or buttocks and made unwelcomed sexual comments during the party.

The court agreed with a finding from the hearing officer, former state Supreme Court Justice Myra Selby, that Hill crossed a line.

“The long, lingering, and meandering touches described by the four women and others, the various reactions of those who experienced or observed those touches, and the numerous other accounts of (Hill’s) conduct at the bar, all offer ample support for the hearing officer’s ultimate finding on this point,” the ruling said.

Hill’s attorneys questioned whether his actions were misinterpreted during the party, where alcohol was flowing along with loud music and conversation. They also argue that he didn’t do anything improper as a lawyer and shouldn’t face law license sanctions because a special prosecutor declined to file criminal charges against him.

The court’s order directs Hill to not undertake any legal matters beginning May 18 for 30 days. The order allows Hill for automatic reinstatement of Hill’s license, differing from the hearing officer’s recommendation that Hill go through a reinstatement process that could have taken a year to complete.

It is unclear how the decision impacts Hill’s ability to serve as state government’s top lawyer. State law requires the attorney general to be “duly licensed to practice law in Indiana,” but it doesn’t specify whether the person can continue serving after facing professional disciplinary action. The Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t address whether he continues as attorney general.

Holcomb said Monday that he still believes Hill should resign from office. He said his legal staff was researching whether he could appoint a new attorney general even though the disciplinary charges were first filed against Hill more than a year ago.

“I am seeking a quick turnaround on those questions to be answered,” Holcomb said.

Hill, who had been viewed as a rising African American star in the Republican Party, is seeking election to a second term this year.

Hill has aimed to build support among social conservatives with actions such as presiding over the burial more than 2,400 fetuses found at Chicago-area properties linked to a deceased Indiana abortion doctor and appearances on Fox News to discuss topics such as San Francisco’s troubles with homelessness.

Two Republicans are challenging Hill for the party’s attorney general nomination, which is to be decided during the GOP state convention scheduled for June 20.

Some Republicans argue nominating Hill puts the GOP’s hold on the office in jeopardy even though Democrats last won a statewide election in 2012.

A top official of the Indiana Democratic Party called Hill a “disgrace” whose conduct was “repulsive.”

“Now the uncertainty created by his punishment could tip the state into a constitutional crisis,” said Lauren Ganapini, the party’s executive director. “Over and over, Indiana Republicans failed to remove him. They now own his shameful conduct and the crisis it’s created.”