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Heitkamp Apologizes for Outing Sexual-Assault Survivors

Senator Heidi Heitkamp speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill, June 21, 2016. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota apologized Tuesday for identifying a number of her constituents as victims of sexual assault without their permission in an open letter to her Republican re-election challenger, Representative Kevin Cramer.

Heitkamp’s campaign included the names and hometowns of 127 women in the open letter and identified them as “survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, or rape.” Immediately after the ad ran in a number of North Dakota newspapers on Monday, four of the signees wrote on Facebook that they never agreed to sign the letter.

Heitkamp’s campaign then released a press release apologizing for the letter:

Sexual assault is a serious crime – and one that too many North Dakota women have experienced. In an attempt to bring awareness to this issue and push back against dismissive comments toward sexual assault survivors by Kevin Cramer, our campaign worked with victim advocates to identify women who would be willing sign the letter or share their story. We recently discovered that several of the women’s names who were provided to us did not authorize their names to be shared or were not survivors of abuse. I deeply regret this mistake and we are in the process of issuing a retraction, personally apologizing to each of the people impacted by this and taking the necessary steps to ensure this never happens again.

Lexi Zhorela, a 24-year-old hairdresser from Bismarck, told National Review that her name was added to the list of victims after her friend tagged her in a Facebook post soliciting signatures for the open letter. Zhorela said she believes the friend tagged her because she was aware of her history as a sexual-assault victim.

“I speak for myself and many of the women whose names were used without our consent. We are very publicly humiliated. Some of us were given a formal apology on this matter, but for me personally the damage is done and my name is now out there forever. A simple ‘sorry this happened’ isn’t going to cut it,” Zhorela said.

The Facebook post asked potential signers to confirm their support for the letter by contacting Dr. Tami DeCoteau, a North Dakota psychologist who has worked with Heitkamp in the past. Zhorela never contacted DeCoteau and never gave her permission for her name to be used.

Eve Lancaster, another North Dakota woman whose name was involuntarily included on the list, told National Review that Heitkamp’s use of the letter, intended as a show of support for victims, had the opposite effect.

“The ad is about non-consent. Why would they just go ahead and take our names without our consent? It’s the same thing, just different case,” she said.

The mutual friend who wrote the Facebook post soliciting signatures and tagged Lancaster and Zhorela claims that she doesn’t know how their names ended up on the open letter. When asked if she wrote the Facebook post at DeCoteau’s direction, the post’s author told National Review to “f*** off.”

The North Dakota Republican party attacked Heitkamp for exposing the women’s identities, suggesting the error was reflective of her general campaign style.

“This is another example of Heidi Heitkamp exploiting whoever she can for political gain. With a campaign built on lies, misinformation, and manufactured controversy, it’s no wonder Heitkamp is the most vulnerable senator in the country,” said Jake Wilkins, communications director for the North Dakota Republican Party.

Heitkamp’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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