NEW: Reporter Behind Story on Katie Hill Affair Worked for Republican Candidates Who Ran Against Hill
Jennifer Van Laar, the writer behind the RedState.com and Daily Mail stories that included nude photos of former Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA), is a longtime GOP consultant who has worked for Republican politicians who ran against Hill and was at one point the campaign manager for a California Republican who ran for Hill’s seat.
RedState’s reporting on Hill, which began in early October after Hill’s estranged husband began spreading allegations about her on Facebook, resulted in the congresswoman resigning on Sunday. Reporting from Van Laar, a managing editor at RedState, led to Hill admitting she had a relationship with a female campaign staffer, but denying her husband’s allegations that she had an affair with her legislative director Graham Kelly. While her relationship with the campaign staffer would not violate the rules of Congress, the alleged affair with Kelly became the subject of a House ethics investigation.
Hill, who is now seeking legal action against the publications in which Van Laar published her nude pictures, said in a resignation announcement that she was a victim of “revenge porn” and accused conservative media outlets of working with her angry husband to spread the photos. The California Democrat added that she now has to take her “personal fight outside of Congress.”
Van Laar, as critics have noted, is not without partisan bonafides. After all, she’s a managing editor at RedState — a right-wing publication that allegedly fired writers for merely opposing President Donald Trump — and runs a Republican consulting and opposition research firm involved in California races.
But she has also worked for Santa Clarita GOP assembly seat candidate Suzette Valladares, who announced in the spring that she was challenging Hill’s seat in 2020 but dropped out last month to join the local race. On top of that, Van Laar worked for former Rep. Steve Knight, the Republican incumbent in California’s 25th Congressional District who was unseated by Hill in 2018.
In an August 5 email sent by Van Laar and obtained by Mediaite, she referred to herself as the “campaign manager” for Valladares, who was running for Hill’s seat at the time. The message was sent using an official email address for the candidate’s campaign. In the email, which was sent to the local podcast show The Talk of Santa Clarita, Van Laar explicitly told host Stephen Daniels, “Yes, I’m coming on as her campaign manager.”
“I will definitely nudge her to get a photo in [a Talk of Santa Clarita] shirt. I’m hosting a meet and greet for her here in the morning,” she added.
Van Laar’s Daily Mail piece on Thursday, published after she broke the story at RedState, featured partially censored nude photos of Hill and details about her open marriage and relationship with a younger campaign aide. The Daily Mail did not include any disclosures about Van Laar’s work for Republicans who ran or attempted runs against Hill. The blogger’s pieces on RedState similarly fail to note her work for Hill’s former opposition.
The Daily Mail, RedState, and Van Laar did not respond to requests for comment.
The origin of the Hill scandal is the former lawmaker’s estranged husband, Kenny Heslep, with whom she is going through divorce proceedings. Prior to his posting the scandalous details about Hill online, which were then picked up by RedState, Heslep was apparently shopping around the story about his politician wife to other outlets, including The Talk of Santa Clarita podcast. Per screenshots obtained by Mediaite, Hill’s husband sent Facebook direct messages in late September to the local news program saying that he had dirt on Hill, but the podcast shot down his pitch, leading Heslep to block the show and hurl a vague threat about exposing the host. “Screen caps of this conversation to be making appearance soon!” he wrote.
Hours after Hill resigned over the weekend, Van Laar took to Twitter to endorse Knight for Hill’s now-vacant seat. She also shared a donation link for congressional candidate Mike Garcia, another Republican running to represent the Golden State’s 25th District.
Well, this changes the game. I’ve known Steve Knight since early 2014 and worked on his 1st campaign. He and Lily stood by me when most in CAGOP did not. He has integrity, cares about the individual, and is a policy wonk. I’d be #TeamKnight again in a heartbeat. #CA25 #KatieHill https://t.co/utz234oiwx
— Jennifer Van Laar (@jenvanlaar) October 28, 2019
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
Throughout Knight’s 2018 campaign against Hill, Van Laar wrote numerous articles advocating for and defending the then-Republican lawmaker. Notably, Van Laar wrote a series of glowing puff pieces that ran cover for an open white nationalist who was controversially featured in Knight’s campaign ads. David Brayton, a veteran facing serious health problems, was presented in a Knight ad as a struggling constituent his campaign had won over, but Brayton’s other background includes calls for gunning down CNN reporters, hanging former President Barack Obama, promoting the KKK, quoting Adolf Hitler approvingly, and repeatedly posting anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments. Van Laar ignored Brayton’s racism in her blogs about the veteran, instead praising him as “a staunch individualist, a loyal friend, a family man, a fierce patriot.”
Van Laar has also been accused of making baseless harassment allegations against a California politician after working on an opposing campaign.
Days before former California State Assemblyman Dante Acosta was up for a general election in 2016, Van Laar, who worked for one of Acosta’s primary opponents, wrote a letter accusing the local politician of sending her sexually inappropriate messages and propositioning her.
Van Laar’s allegations were swiftly scrutinized, given that she had initially pushed Acosta to run for office and texted him about working with his campaign months after the harassment allegedly occurred, but Acosta shot down her offer. She then went on to work for his opponent.
“The woman in question alleges that the behavior occurred in January 2015 in Washington, D.C. More than a year later, the woman encouraged Mr. Acosta to run for State Senate, and then State Assembly, and to retain her as his consultant,” read a statement by Acosta’s office, who also released screenshots of texts between Van Laar and the candidate that showed nothing inappropriate. “She continued to communicate with him in person, telephonically, and text up until he filed to run.”
Van Laar accused Acosta of fabricating or altering the screenshots. When the Los Angeles Times asked her for to provide copies of inappropriate texts, she declined.
An Assembly rules committee in Sacramento looked into Van Laar’s claim that Acosta “used Assembly resources to attempt to harass and intimidate” her but, as of February 2018, it found no evidence of wrongdoing.
In a resignation video released on Monday, Hill called out the reporting by Van Laar and others as a “coordinated campaign carried out by the right wing media and Republican opponents enabling and perpetuating my husband’s abuse by providing him a platform.”
“[It] is disgusting and unforgivable and they will be held accountable,” she added.
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