Idaho intern reported rape, faced ‘overwhelming’ harassment

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Idaho state Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, right, a Republican from Lewiston, watches as members of the House ethics committee discuss whether he acted in a way that was “unbecoming” to his position in connection with rape allegations brought against him by a 19-year-old intern, during a hearing in Boise, Idaho, on Thursday, April 29, 2021. The committee unanimously agreed on Thursday that von Ehlinger should be formally censured and suspended from his office, and that a new lawmaker should be appointed to serve in his place. The full House could vote on the matter as soon as Friday. (AP Photo/Rebecca Boone)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The moment a 19-year-old intern reported that she was raped by an Idaho lawmaker became public, the harassment began.

One state representative sought a copy of her police report, and made inquiries into how the young woman could be herself referred from criminal charges for reporting the alleged rape. Another shared links to a far-right blog post that included the intern’s name, photo and personal details about her life with thousands of people in a newsletter and on social media. Members of a far-right, anti-government activist group tried to follow and harass the young woman after she was called to testify in a legislative public ethics hearing.

“I can take criticism. I can take people laying out their opinion on me,” the intern told The Associated Press in a phone interview Sunday evening. “But this, it’s just overwhelming.”

The Associated Press doesn’t name people who report sexual assault unless they agree to be publicly named. The intern in this case asked to use the name “Jane Doe,” which is the name she testified under during a legislative ethics committee hearing last week.

The investigation into then-Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, a Republican from Lewiston, underscores why many alleged sex crimes go unreported. While the #MeToo movement made it clear that sexual harassment and assault remains a widespread problem, survivors can face stigma and disbelief when they come forward. Today about three out of every four sexual assaults go unreported, according to the Rape and Incest National Network, and data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that as many as one-fifth of sexual violence survivors who chose not to report their crimes to police cited the fear of retaliation as a primary reason.

The probe began in March after the intern reported he raped her in his apartment after they went to a Boise restaurant. Von Ehlinger has denied all wrongdoing and maintains they had consensual sex. The Boise Police Department is investigating.

A legislative ethics committee voted unanimously last week that he engaged in “conduct unbecoming” a lawmaker. Von Ehlinger resigned before the full House could vote on whether to remove him from office.

Still, the harassment faced by Doe has not stopped. Members of the far-right are still attacking, some calling her disparaging names and posting her photo.

“You know that photo everyone is posting? I’m 12 years old in that photo. I’m not even a teenager in that photo, and they’re sharing it calling me nasty,” Doe said. “But the truth cannot be altered.”

Doe first began working in the Idaho Statehouse a year ago, helping with legislative committees under the Legislature’s high school “page” program. She came back this year as an intern, hoping to prepare for a future career in government. She said she agreed to von Ehlinger’s dinner invitation because she was hoping to network, and was excited to go to a restaurant that cost far more than what she could afford on her near-minimum wage salary.

After dinner, von Ehlinger brought her back to his apartment rather than her car because he said he’d forgotten something. Once there, Doe said, he then pinned her down and forced her to perform oral sex, despite the fact that she said “no” in several ways and froze. Doe is petite, and von Ehlinger is bigger, she said.

“He has a collection of guns. Fight or flight was never an option,” she said.

During the alleged rape, Doe tried to focus on something else.

“I got fixated on his curtains because they were bright red — I named them ‘American red,’ in my head, because it was bright like the stripes in the flag,” she said. “I just stared at it … I will never forget how disgusting I felt.”

She reported the incident two days later. Next came forensic exams, reports to the Idaho Attorney General and interviews with the ethics committee.

The committee eventually announced a public hearing would be held on the matter, making Doe’s complaint public on April 16.

Within hours, von Ehlinger’s supporters began publicizing Doe’s identity. One of his attorneys released a letter to the press that included Doe’s real name. Two far-right websites posted Doe’s name and details about her life, and one also included her photo.

“I respected them enough not to keep it a secret,” Doe said of von Ehlinger’s fellow lawmakers, “and they destroyed me.”

Rep. Priscilla Giddings, a Republican from White Bird, shared the link with Doe’s name and photo in a newsletter to constituents and saying the allegations were nothing more than a “liberal smear job.” She also shared the blog post with thousands of followers on social media, making the intern’s identity widely known. Giddings has not responded to repeated requests for comment from The AP.

Rep. Heather Scott, a Republican from Blanchard, filed a public record request with the city of Boise seeking a copy of the young woman’s police report. Scott approached Rep. Melissa Wintrow, a Democrat from Boise, to ask about how a person who files a false police report alleging sexual assault could be charged. Wintrow is a board member for the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence, which is representing Jane Doe.

Scott refused to answer questions from The AP and sent one comment in a short email.

“I dont (sic) think you have your facts straight,” Scott wrote on April 27.

Doe didn’t know her identity had been made public until her next shift at the Statehouse. Right away she could tell the mood around her was different.

“The secretaries let me know that Giddings had done that and they were showing me the article,” Doe said, “and my life is crashing before my eyes.”

She kept showing up for work — partly because the ethics committee told her she needed to be available, she said. But she felt like she was under a magnifying glass. Lawyers with the Attorney General’s office questioned her about her movements around the Statehouse. When she tried to ask the governor for a photo — she’d hoped to collect one for every year she served in the Capitol building — staffers assumed she just wanted to complain, Doe said.

“Nobody had the humanity to even look me in the eye, like I brought shame,” she said. “They made it seem as if everything I do is suspicious.”

Being called to testify publicly at the ethics hearing compounded the pain. She’d already testified in private, only to be stopped when she began the difficult process of describing the alleged rape by a committee member who said it might make both Doe and the committee uncomfortable.

“I was so upset by that,” Doe said.

Doe was shielded from public view during the hearing, and the committee warned everyone her identity should stay private. As Doe left the hearing, some onlookers who were there in support of von Ehlinger rushed out to try to film her.

Boise resident Karen Smith, herself a former Statehouse intern who attended the ethics hearing to support Doe, heard the intern screaming in the hallway after she was accosted.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, somebody needs to maybe go help,’” Smith recounted.

When Smith found the group, Doe was curled up in a ball on the floor as her legal team tried to shield her with umbrellas. The onlookers were trying to get close to the young woman to videotape her and take photos.

Smith and another person tried to block the onlookers from getting close to Doe, she said.

“There were like eight policeman there, state police, but they were watching and not doing anything and they said, ‘We’re not allowed to take sides.’ So we kept at it,” Smith said.

Though the ethics investigation was not a criminal investigation, criminal trials do provide some guidance for situations like this one where emotions can be expected to run high, said former U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson.

“You have to anticipate what are the risks to this person,” Olson said in a phone interview last week, and take steps including private entrances and exits for witnesses and warning people against retaliating in any way.

“The court always makes it clear that among the worst things you could ever do is try to harass or intimidate a witness,” Olson said.

The alleged rape, harassment and the hearing all made one thing clear, Doe said. She won’t stop fighting until she’s sure the Statehouse has policies in place to prevent anyone else from experiencing the same pain she’s been subjected to.

“This has all been pushed at me against my will after my repeated attempts at ‘No,’” she said. “But I’m taking my voice back. It’s mine, it’s not theirs.”

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