Two former House staffers were indicted Thursday by the U.S. Attorney’s 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. It’s 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 Justice’s indictment of her two former congressional aides on federal charges related to the circulation of their former boss’s private nude images.
The staffers worked in Plaskett’s 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 Plaskett’s 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 Plaskett’s 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. McCullum’s 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 Plaskett’s photos and video under a soon-to-be-edited headline using the phrase “sex tape.” Before the day’s 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 didn’t want to play the victim or be this distraught and upset woman,” she said.
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SOURCE: The Daily Beast, Rory Laverty and James Laporta