Fayette County

Lexington Council candidate posts pictures of opponent at bachelor party

A candidate for Urban County Council who has alleged massive corruption in Lexington government is now making waves by posting on the Web photos of an opponent watching naked women perform during a 1990s bachelor party.

Christopher Alan Hignite, one of nine candidates for an at-large seat on the council, took the pictures, which show Urban County Councilman Chuck Ellinger II at the party. Ellinger, who is fully clothed in the pictures, and other men watch as several young women put oil on one another and dance.

On Saturday, Hignite uploaded the photos to a Web address connected to his campaign site. Then he sent e-mails around Lexington announcing them and posted the Web address on at least one local political blog. Hignite employed the strippers seen in the photos.

On Monday, Ellinger said he was unaware of the photos' existence until the Herald-Leader asked about them. He said he might sue Hignite if he concludes that his opponent defamed him with malice intended.

"It was a friend's bachelor's party that happened ... before I was on the Urban County Council," said Ellinger, who has never been married. "I think it's important that we stay focused on the issues that are important to this community."

Ellinger, 46, an attorney, is seeking a third term on the non-partisan council. He generally has not run as a social conservative, although he took some conservative stances, such as opposing same-sex marriage, during an unsuccessful Republican campaign for the state Senate in 2008.

Hignite said he posted the pictures because Ellinger has led a "sheltered, insulated life."

"I wanted to bring him down to my level," said Hignite, 44, who said he now makes his living as a photographer. "I wanted Chuck to know what it feels like to stand accused of something publicly and not have anywhere to turn away from it."

This episode is startling, but it was inevitable that the Internet — so powerful at raising money and promoting candidates — would be used for campaign attacks, said Don Dugi, a political scientist at Transylvania University.

"This is a whole new arena. Once you get it out there, everything spreads like wildfire on Twitter and YouTube and Facebook and all the other social media," Dugi said.

"It's still too early to tell how it's going to play out," he added. "It could backfire on the candidate who makes the attack. Or of course, you could fake all kinds of awful things online with Photoshop and other tricks. We could be looking at smears based on evidence that isn't even real."

Ellinger did not suggest the photos were faked. He said he attended the party in 1994; Hignite said the party was in 1996. Ellinger was first elected in 2002.

"I arrived innocently and I left innocently," Ellinger said.

Hignite said he did not try to conceal his camera that night as he walked around the swimming pool where the men drank, lounged and swam as the women entertained. At the time, he said, he owned a singing telegram business that employed strippers.

"There were a few times people cast a nervous glance at my camera," Hignite said.

In his campaign, Hignite alleges massive corruption in local government and law enforcement and says officials have tried to kill him to keep him quiet. He blames the unsolved 1999 shooting death of a friend, escort service owner Deborah Wardlaw, on "connections to City Hall" and blames Ellinger, among others, for not helping him solve the crime.

Nine people are running this spring for the council's three at-large seats: Ellinger and another incumbent, Linda Gorton, and Hignite, Kathy Plomin, George Brown Jr., Don Pratt, Ismael Shalash, Steve Kay and Ralph Ruschell.

The May 18 primary will reduce the field to six candidates. Three of them will be elected to the council Nov. 2, with the top vote-getter becoming vice mayor.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader