Dramatic Capitol Hill hearings, filled with frightening insider testimony, have exposed war profiteers for more than a century and brought down presidents and demagogues as well as put prospective Supreme Court justices on the defence. However, a peculiar defamation action brought in a federal court in Washington, D.C., this month has the potential to upset the Washington custom of Capitol Hill hearing testimonies. And even if it fails, it brings attention to the vulnerability of witnesses who testify before Congress.
Zia Chishti, the businessman who founded the organisation that created Invisalign dental braces, was fired from his position as CEO of the multibillion-dollar AI startup Afiniti last year after a former employee of the company testified before Congress about what she called Chishti’s violent sexual abuse. The woman’s claims were made public after she had been subpoenaed to testify under oath in a House Judiciary Committee hearing last year. Chishti, a well-connected Washington business figure who was once listed among People magazine’s top 50 bachelors and had people like Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan among the unicorn company’s early investors, is now suing the woman over those claims.
Chishti, 51, claims that his unorthodox but consensual relationship with Tatiana Spottiswoode, 29, was characterised by “the sharing of small scratch, bite, whip, and slap marks.” In his court document, Chishti states, “This lawsuit is about a consensual love affair between Ms. Tatiana Spottiswoode and me that was effectively weaponized by Ms. Spottiswoode by intentionally deceiving and misleading Congress while under oath.”
That is, to put it mildly, not the version that was heard by those who followed the subsequent story of Chishti’s swift removal following the resignations of A-listers like former British Prime Minister David Cameron from Afiniti’s advisory board or who watched the November 2021 hearing or read news accounts that included troubling photos of the injuries Spottiswoode testified about having sustained from a 2017 encounter while on a business trip.
Spottiswoode, now a law student, gave distressing testimony about being “groomed” at age 21, humiliated in front of peers after rejecting Chishti’s overtures, and going through traumatic sexual encounters. She stated in a prepared statement that Chishti also included with his accusation, “I went to his room, where he beat me while having sex with me.” I informed him that I was being hurt. He replied, “Good.” Until the next day, I remained hidden in my hotel room. I had cuts, contusions, and scratches all over my body. I had a big knock on my skull, a black eye, and marks around my neck that looked like I’d been strangled. I was diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms by a hospital nurse.
The hearing was the most dramatic part of a legislative campaign to pass a bill that forbade businesses from requiring arbitration in sexual misconduct cases. Spottiswoode had to sign the bill, and critics said that businesses used it to shield C-suite offenders. Most perspectives agree that the effort has been a huge success: Bipartisan backing helped the bill pass, and it was signed into law in March.
Chishti, however, believed the hearing to be a serious injustice. He spent the entire year stewing over having been falsely accused and being powerless to defend himself while being jobless and his reputation in ruins. He compared the situation to McCarthyism when we spoke to each other this week. He said that someone had “totally eviscerated someone else” in front of Congress and received their support. And Congress refused to give the accused person any chance to defend himself or even consider that there might be another side to the story.
Chishti is attempting to build a counternarrative through his lawsuit for defamation and other allegations, which is supported by an exhibit of text messages and other material that is meant to refute Spottiswoode’s version. Will it function? I suspect not. It’s difficult to imagine most Americans, especially those who hear Spottiswoode’s deeply upsetting account, being willing to write off horrific allegations against a CEO by a lower-level employee 20 years his junior as a he-said, she-said situation after a half-decade of cultural reckoning over power and abuse in the workplace.
Even if you are not interested in going over the specifics of what transpired between the two, the case raises some intriguing legal and ethical issues in a place where prominent public testimony frequently serves as a battleground for political and cultural battles.
The main issue, in Chishti’s opinion, is this: What should you do if you believe that you have been libelled in a Congressional proceeding? He most certainly isn’t the only one who feels this way. The difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that he comes across as an uncaring person. In theory, lying in a deposition before Congress may result in charges of perjury. But no elected official is going to suggest criminal perjury charges against a young woman for speaking up and bringing accusations against someone similar to him in the current context — or, indeed, in any climate.
This week, Chishti said that not a single question raised during the testimony “contradicted her narrative,” adding that he had only been given a day’s notice of the testimony and had not been invited to present his own version because the meeting was on a separate subject.