Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett Opens Up About Being a Revenge Porn Victim

Two former House staffers were indicted Thursday by the U.S. Attorneys office on charges related to an alleged revenge porn leak against their former boss, Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands). In her first stateside interview since the incident, which took place just before her July 2016 Democratic primary election, Plaskett told The Daily Beast the exclusive story of how she became a victim of what she calls cyber sexual assault.

It was 1 a.m. on a sweltering July night in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the then-first-term congresswoman was asleep in her home with her family, when the phone rang. It would ring many more times that night.

Plaskett and husband Jonathan Buckney-Small scrambled from bed to take the first call. His brother was on the line, saying somebody just posted a topless selfie of Plaskett on Facebook, as well as a short video Plaskett took of her nude husband and their clothed daughter in their bathroom, playing with makeup. Its on a public page, he said, being downloaded as we speak.

The couple started calling Facebook and anyone they could think of who might have sway with Facebook or law enforcement, which was a lot of people. Buckney-Small is a popular community activist and former professional tennis player, and Plaskett is the Virgin Islands lone delegate to the U.S. Congress.

Facebook took the post down at 4 a.m.which was at least three hours too late.

That was the opening sequence of the saga Plaskett and her family endured beginning July 21, 2016, and culminating Thursday with the Department of Justices indictment of her two former congressional aides on federal charges related to the circulation of their former bosss private nude images.

The staffers worked in Plasketts legislative office in Washington, D.C. According to the indictment, Juan R. McCullum, 35, of Washington D.C., who worked in the office from April 2015 to July 2016, was charged with two counts of cyberstalking, and Dorene Browne-Louis, 45, of Upper Marlboro, Md., who worked in the office from January 2015 to April 2016, was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice.

The indictment alleges that McCullum offered to get Plasketts iPhone repaired at a local Apple store in March 2016. The iPhone contained private, nude photos and videos that McCullum is alleged to have stolen and distributed using a Hotmail address and a Facebook account under a fictitious name. McCullum also is alleged to have encouraged others on social media to distribute and post the images in Plasketts congressional district during the run-up to her primary election.

McCullum told Browne-Louis about his activities as early as July 2, according to the indictment. She is accused of deleting text messages from McCullum and making false, incomplete, and misleading statements to law enforcement and a grand jury. Browne-Louis made her first appearance in court on Thursday, where she pleaded not guilty to the charges and was released on her own recognizance. McCullums first appearance in court has not yet been scheduled.

I was informed today that preliminary arrests had been made of individuals who are alleged to have been involved in those illegal acts, Plaskett said in a statement Friday. I am deeply grateful to the Capitol Police and U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia for their thorough and in-depth investigation of the crimes committed against me. Her office declined to comment further on the specifics of the indictment, given the ongoing investigation.

But in an exclusive interview conducted before the indictments, Plaskett told The Daily Beast that on July 22, 2016, when she and her husband got the stolen material temporarily removed from Facebook, their relief was short-lived.

That same afternoon, Politico came out with a story about Plasketts photos and video under a soon-to-be-edited headline using the phrase sex tape. Before the days end, other publications including The Hill, Jezebel, and the New York Daily News picked up not just the story but the sex-tape misnomer. Bipartisan Report took less than a day to label the scandal career-ending.

I had to call my sons in college and sit down with my son in the eighth grade and try to explain this to them, Plaskett, 51, told The Daily Beast in her first stateside interview on the events in question. The [New York] Daily News ran a story, so I had to call my parents, who are in their 80s and live in New York and were getting phone calls about me.

The photo, she explained, was a topless selfie she had taken for her husband, something like a souvenir of a healthy marriage, she said, and the video was a non-sexual home movie of a private family moment. Both, Plaskett alleged then, were criminally hacked from her phone or computer.

When the photo and video were released, Plaskett said she felt like she was traversing a minefield. She wanted to win re-election, but she refused to act like a victim. People were trying to bait me to go down a rabbit trail of talking about this a lot, and I didnt want to play the victim or be this distraught and upset woman, she said.

The most painful part was the allusion or allegation that the close family relationship we had was inappropriate, Plaskett said, referring to the video of her husband and their daughter. We live in a hot climate in the tropics, and we only have ceiling fans. We dont have central air because it costs too much, so you walk around in your underwear, or someone can walk into you in a bathroom and you dont have any clothes on. Its really no big deal, but people were alluding to us doing [sexual] stuff with our little girl around. That was really, really hurtful.

It didnt hurt her at the polls, though. The day the photo and video appeared, Plaskett issued a statement denouncing the hacking and non-consensual posting of the material, and two days later she did a lone interview on the topic with the Virgin Islands Consortium. She went on to trounce her Democratic primary opponent, 85 percent to 14 percent.

Some critics, such as the Republican write-in opponent in the 2016 general election, Gordon Ackley, pounced on the video as evidence of inappropriate behavior in Plasketts family.

"It is deeply unfortunate when those entrusted to serve our community engage in a manner that poorly reflects upon the Virgin Islands," Ackley wrote in a statement to Politico on July 21, the morning the photos were posted. "I have always tried to conduct myself in an honorable manner and to provide a positive influence for the next generation of Virgin Islanders."

Plaskett went on to overwhelm Ackley in the November general election, garnering almost 98 percent of the vote. Her press secretary, Richard Motta, said the effort to harm her politically backfired.

There was an overwhelmingly positive outpouring of support for the congresswoman, Motta said. People said, Shes this elected official, and if this can happen to her it can happen to me too.

Plaskett was heartened that even the church ladies of the Virgin Islands had her back.

Those people who they thought would be upset with me, the elders, were the ones who were like, Young lady, thats your home, thats your private business, and I dont want anybody looking in my bedroom, so what you do in your bedroom is not my business either, Plaskett said. That was really kind of an amazing feeling to me.

The now-two-term, non-voting delegate to the U.S. House says she was equally comforted by all the professional women, including women of color, who rallied to her cause.

One of the groups that is difficult to gain support from, as a woman of color, is other professional women of color, because were harder on each other, said Plaskett, who was born in Brooklyn, and whose family is from the Virgin Islands. Women can be very critical of other women, but when they saw someone going after me directly as a woman, that group was like, Oh, hell no, were not going to stand for that. So I think it was really important to have other professional women see me as a human being, and see themselves in me.

She is more accustomed to going it alone. As a young woman, Plaskett left the Bushwick projects in Brooklyn to attend Choate Hall for high school, Georgetown University for college, and American University for law school. She went on to become an assistant district attorney in the Bronx, a legislative staffer in the U.S. House, and an Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department, where she worked on 9/11 settlements and became a lead attorney for the U.S. racketeering case against Philip Morris and the tobacco industry.

Having gone through all of those things, always being the token or the only one, always having a microscope on me all my life, eventually you get a thick skin, Plaskett said. But this was different. It exposed my entire family.

She pressed charges in the case, prompting an investigation by assistant U.S. Attorneys and D.C. Capitol police that culminated in a grand jury investigation. While Plaskett said she was frustrated at times by the slow pace and opacity of the grand jury, shes encouraged by the level of care shown by investigators pursuing a sensitive and complicated issue.

She now calls what happened to her cyber sexual assault, because she believes revenge porn is too narrow of a category.

It isnt always about revenge, Plaskett said of the changing legal and political terminology for non-consensual distribution of explicit images. It may be a case of blackmail, it may be a case of someone whos just a creep, it may be hacking, it may be someone whos never had a relationship with you at all, so I think we need to broaden the scope of this and bring awareness that it needs to change.

She remains angry at Politico, the New York Daily News and other publications that erroneously called the photo and video post a sex-tape and failed to seek comment from her before publication. Last year, my privacy was invaded, which was followed by an organized smear campaign and defamatory press reports concerning both my family and me, she said in Fridays statement.

The Daily Beast reached out to Politico and the New York Daily News for comment but did not receive replies before publication.

Plaskett said she decided to speak to The Daily Beast, and to find ways to support other members of Congress such as Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Cal.), who are seeking to address the issue, because she believes if lawmakers do not take immediate action, the scourge of cyber sexual assault may become more widespread than it already is. Plaskett and Speier have argued for a federal law against the non-consensual distribution of explicit, private images.

Currently there is no such federal law, but legislation introduced last year by Speier, a long-time advocate for the criminalization of revenge porn, aimed to fill that gap with The Intimate Privacy Protection Act of 2016. It failed to pass during the legislative session, but on Friday Speiers office told The Daily Beast she plans to reintroduce the bill in the upcoming session.

Weak men are doing this to make themselves feel better about themselves, and to subjugate women, Plaskett said. We need to look at ways to tighten this so [the Internet] is not a safe space for men to strip women down and subjugate them in a new kind of way.

She told a brief version of her story to a dozen members of Congress and the press at a bipartisan gathering of the Democratic Womens Working group on the militarys nude photo scandal in early April, but Plaskett said she granted her first stateside interview on the subject with The Daily Beast because girls and women from all facets of society, including the military and even Congress, are at risk of the same personal and professional traumas that she has endured over the past year.

What I try to tell people, when they ask how I felt, is that I was standing in front of the public, and someone just grabbed me and ripped my clothes off, in front of all of you, Plaskett said. In any other instance that would be sexual assault, but because it was on the internet, its not. And thats got to change.

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