Twenty-five years after Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, the controversy has been revived by an HBO made-for-TV movie about the case.
During Thomas’s 1991 confirmation hearings, Hill told congressional investigators that he had made inappropriate sexual advances and comments to her while she was working as his assistant in the early 1980s. Her affidavit was leaked to the press and quickly became the center of the nomination fight.
Thomas denied the allegations, famously denouncing the investigation as a “high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks.” Hill’s claims did not derail his Supreme Court appointment, and the Senate eventually confirmed him.
Thomas’s supporters argue that the complete volume of evidence—including sealed congressional testimony that has never previously been published in full—raises questions about Hill’s claims.
They are speaking out in response to the HBO movie Confirmation, released last week, which they say is heavily biased against Thomas.
“Ask any person whose only knowledge of this event is based on this movie, and I would guarantee that 100 percent of those who only watched this movie would say Hill told the truth,” said Mark Paoletta, a former White House attorney under President George H.W. Bush. “But at the end of the hearings, after watching these proceedings unfiltered by any media spin, the American people believed Thomas 2-1 and even 3-1 in some polls.”
Paoletta launched a website ConfirmationBiased.com, which says it seeks to provide “the real story HBO won’t tell you.” The website includes transcripts from the hearing and other records.
One document obtained by the Washington Free Beacon that is not included on the website is a sealed transcript from a congressional interview with Gary Liman Phillips, a Washington attorney and friend of Hill. The document is from an archive at Clemson University, which includes papers from the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Phillips testified that he spoke to Hill over the phone shortly after Thomas was nominated. Although the two were friends, Phillips said he and Hill were in contact less frequently after she moved from Washington, D.C., to Oklahoma about seven years before.
Phillips said Hill told him for the first time that she had been sexually harassed by Thomas during this conversation.
Critics said the sealed transcript undermines Hill’s claim that she was reluctant to tell anyone about the story or go public with the allegations. Phillips, a well-connected Washington attorney, testified that he told at least three people about Hill’s allegations after the phone call, including former Senate Judiciary Committee staffer Keith Henderson and an unnamed acquaintance of Hill.
“I remember mentioning this to three people. So I mentioned it to three friends of Anita’s and mine. One of the people wasn’t really a friend of Anita’s, someone who had met Anita, was my roommate,” Phillips said. “Two of the people were mutual friends of Anita, one of whom was [former Senate Judiciary Committee staffer] Keith Henderson. I didn’t mention this right away. I mentioned this to Keith sometime in September.”
However, Phillips also said in the transcript that Hill did not seem interested at the time in pursuing the issue. He did not respond to questions about who he told about Hill’s statements.
Hill did not return a request for comment about Phillips’ testimony.
Hill’s allegations reportedly caught the attention of congressional aides after someone mentioned them at a dinner party in Washington. Shortly after, Hill was contacted by investigators on the Senate Judiciary Committee and eventually agreed to submit an affidavit about her claims. The affidavit was later leaked to the media.
“A significant amount of information was left out of the movie, such as the fact that Hill actually put this rumor about Thomas into play by calling a well-placed friend in Washington and telling him that Thomas harassed her at the EEOC,” Paoletta said.
According to Paoletta, publicly available documents show many conflicts in Hill’s story.
For example, he noted that Hill continued to work with Thomas at the U.S. Department of Education after the harassment allegedly began, then followed him to a different job at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Hill said she followed Thomas to the EEOC because she was concerned about losing her job, but that his alleged harassment continued to disturb and upset her.
After leaving Washington in 1983, Hill reportedly called Thomas at least ten times over the next four years. Hill said she called Thomas again in 1990 to confirm that he received an invitation to speak at the commencement ceremony at the college where she was a professor.
Hill said these were return phone calls or calls made as favors for colleagues, and that she did not actively seek conversations with Thomas. She testified that some details in her story changed as she began recalling more information that she had repressed or previously forgotten.
Paoletta is not the only person close to the hearings to speak out against the HBO film. Prior to its release, former Sens. Alan Simpson and Jack Danforth told Politico they had concerns about the movie’s accuracy after reading copies of the script.
"Obviously, they were going to go forward with [the film], and obviously there are going to be some repercussions because they’ve opened a hornet's nest,” Simpson said. He told Politico the story in the script was “seriously distorted.”
Danforth told the outlet that his biggest concern from reading the script was “an error of omission.”
“The script gave the impression that politics motivated my defense of Justice Thomas during the ordeal of the hearings. That was not the case. In fact, what led me to stand by him was our close friendship, which at that time had already stretched over more than 15 years,” Danforth said.
Stuart Taylor, a Brookings Institution fellow who covered the hearings as a reporter, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the HBO movie left out glaring contradictions in Hill’s story.
“The movie ignores Ms. Hill’s failure to mention either in her initial written statement to the Judiciary Committee or in her FBI interview some of the most shocking charges about Mr. Thomas’s behavior that she added in testimony three weeks later,” Taylor wrote. “Worse, when asked about these omissions, Ms. Hill claimed that the FBI agents had told her that she need not ‘discuss things that were too embarrassing.’ Both agents flatly contradicted this.”
Taylor added that the movie “also doesn’t mention that Ms. Hill denied—five times—in sworn testimony any recollection of being told by a Democratic staffer that she might be able to force Mr. Thomas to withdraw without being publicly identified. The movie thereby avoids needing to report that, after conferring with her lawyers, Ms. Hill admitted having been told this.”
HBO defended the movie as accurate and fair in a statement to Politico last February.
"There’s no agenda. There’s no slanting of it. Basically, people are talking about something they haven’t seen and when you see the film, you’ll see it’s quite evenhanded,” said HBO Films President Len Amato.
Paoletta called on the Senate Judiciary Committee to release the full set of files from the investigation, saying that the controversy can be put to rest once the public has a complete view of the evidence.
“Finally, given the continuing controversy on this topic, I would like to see the Senate Judiciary Committee release all of its files on this matter,” Paoletta said. “They are scheduled to be sealed for another 25 years, and given the continuing efforts to re-write history, I think it's important for historical purposes to have complete transparency on what the Committee did and what the Committee knew during these hearings. Release the files.”