INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A prominent supporter of Indiana’s attorney general is arguing that a proposed suspension of his law license over allegations of drunkenly groping four women is excessive and that even the proposed punishment wouldn’t force him from office.
It remained unclear Monday whether Republican Attorney General Curtis Hill could remain in as the state government’s top lawyer if the Indiana Supreme Court agreed with a hearing officer’s recommendation released Friday that his law license be suspended for at least 60 days.
Hill has denied wrongdoing and rebuffed calls from Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and other GOP state officials for his resignation for his actions during the March 2018 party at an Indianapolis bar marking the end of that year’s legislative session.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Myra Selby wrote in her report to the court that Hill’s “conduct was offensive, invasive, damaging and embarrassing” to the women.
She recommended a 60-day suspension of his law license without automatic reinstatement under which the sanction could continue indefinitely until lifted by the state Supreme Court, which will make the final decision in the professional misconduct case.
James Bopp, a Terre Haute attorney who is a former vice chairman of the Republican National Committee, objected to Selby’s findings that Hill should be held to a higher standard of conduct because of his status as the state’s top law enforcement officer.
“He should not be treated more harshly because he is a public official, that’s the job of the voters,” said Bopp, who helped start a legal defense fund for Hill in 2018. “When people do things in office, they’re judged by the voters.”
Messages seeking comment were left Monday for attorneys who represented Hill during an October hearing before Selby.
Hill’s attorneys have 30 days to submit filings to the Supreme Court, which doesn’t face a deadline for ruling.
The wait for that decision comes as Hill is seeking reelection to the office he first won in 2016, but first needs to win nomination in June’s state Republican convention.
He’s being opposed by Adam Krupp, who stepped down in January as the Holcomb-appointed head of the state revenue department to run for attorney general.
The court’s decision is key as state law requires the attorney general to be “duly licensed to practice law in Indiana” but doesn’t otherwise specify those law license requirements.
Republican Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, who called for Hill’s resignation in 2018, said he believed Hill could remain in office while under a short-term suspension, although the prospect of an indefinite suspension causes uncertainty that he hoped the five-member Supreme Court would address in its final ruling.
“I will publicly ask for them to give clarity to the state on the issue rather than making someone file (a lawsuit) for clarity after the fact,” Bosma said.
The governor’s office has lawyers reviewing the issue but didn’t have additional comment Monday, Holcomb spokeswoman Rachel Hoffmeyer said.
Bopp said he believed Hill could continue in office during a suspension handling administrative matters while delegating any legal work to others.
The allegations against Hill include that he grabbed the buttocks of Democratic Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon and inappropriately touched and made unwelcomed sexual comments toward three female legislative staffers — ages 23 to 26 at the time.
A special prosecutor declined to file criminal charges and the women have filed a federal lawsuit against Hill and the state accusing him of sexual harassment and defamation.
Selby found that Hill used his state office “to intimidate the four women who alleged misconduct, three of whom were young women at the onset of their careers.
(Hill’s) unwavering public campaign in defense of himself showed little restraint and amplified the impact of his conduct on the four women.”
Bopp contrasted the proposed punishment for Hill to the 60- or 30-day suspensions ordered by the Supreme Court for three southern Indiana judges whose actions during a night of downtown Indianapolis bar-hopping escalated a fight during which two of them were shot.
Selby concluded that Hill committed a misdemeanor-level battery offense, but that the state attorney disciplinary commission didn’t prove the more serious allegation of sexual battery.
“In that context I just think the recommended punishment is grossly excessive,” Bopp said. “I just think treating him way more severely is just not justified.”
Indiana House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Torr said it would likely fall to the state Supreme Court to state whether a temporary attorney suspension would allow Holcomb to appoint a replacement for Hill.
“If he was disbarred, the answer would be obvious,” said Torr, a Carmel Republican. “In this case, the answer would not be so obvious.”