Politics

Blumenthal ‘Deeply Disappointed’ in How Esty Handled Abuse Allegations

Connecticut Democrat kept chief of staff in her office for three months after accusations of striking, harassing another staffer

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., waited for three months before cutting ties with her former chief of staff after discovering he had allegedly punched, berated, sexually harassed and delivered death threats to another employee in her office. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he was “deeply disappointed” in the way Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a fellow Connecticut Democrat, handled abuse and harassment allegations by her former chief of staff.

“I’m just learning the facts. I need to know more. There should be clearly, unquestionably no tolerance for harassment or assault in the workplace, and this story should be a reminder of how we need to support and encourage survivors and victims to come forward.”

Asked whether Esty should resign, Blumenthal said he wanted more information but it that was a decision for the people she represents.

“What she does in the future really is a decision for her constituents. She needs to talk to her constituents. I’m still learning all the facts, and I need to know more,” Blumenthal said. “And perhaps so do they.”

Blumenthal also said that no similar incidents have taken place on his staff during his decades as a public official.

Watch: The #MeToo Impact on 2018

Problem staffer

Esty is under fire for keeping her chief of staff on the payroll for three months after learning of abuse allegations against him and for writing him a letter of recommendation after letting him go.

She severed ties in 2016 with Chief of Staff Tony Baker for allegedly punching, berating and sexually harassing Anna Kain, a senior aide at the time, the Connecticut Post reported Thursday.

“You better f---ing reply to me or I will f---ing kill you,” Baker said in a May 5, 2016, voice mail recording left for Kain that was obtained by The Washington Post.

Kain contacted the police and filed a report for felony threats and secured a 12-month restraining order against Baker, The Washington Post reported.

The two staffers dated casually in 2013, but the abuse didn’t end after the relationship did, Kain has alleged.

In 2014, Baker punched her in the back and “repeatedly screamed” at her in Esty’s office, she wrote in her petition for the restraining order. Baker threatened professional retaliation if she told anyone. She did not tell Esty or the House Ethics Committee because she feared for her safety.

Baker’s friend and spokesman Andrew Ricci told the Connecticut Post that Baker denied he had punched Kain. Baker had a drinking problem in 2016, but has since become sober and received treatment for anger and substance abuse, Ricci said.

Esty discovered the alleged abuse within a week after the voice mail death threat, The Washington Post reported. But instead of firing or suspending Baker, the congresswoman consulted her personal lawyers and advisers. She spoke with Kain on May 11, 2016, to get more information about Baker’s alleged abuses.

By the time Esty cut ties with Baker on Aug. 12, she had co-written him a positive recommendation letter touting his “considerable skills” that he could use seeking his next job and signed a legal document preventing her from making damaging remarks against him or discussing why he left her office, The Washington Post reported.

Baker then worked for the gun control group Sandy Hook Promise for roughly a year and a half before being dismissed Monday.

Pressure mounts

The National Republican Congressional Committee called on Esty to resign.

Elizabeth Esty orchestrated one of the most disturbing Washington cover-ups in recent memory. There is no place for someone who protects abusers in Congress, and she should resign immediately,” NRCC spokesman Chris Martin said in a statement.

AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Speaker Paul D. Ryan, said, “There’s no place for this behavior in the House of Representatives which is why we passed this year an overhaul of the way Congress deals with harassment.” 

Connecticut’s largest newspaper, The Hartford Courant, called for Esty to resign in an editorial that said the way she handled the matter was “appalling.” 

Esty expressed remorse for how she handled the situation, especially in light of the #MeToo movement that has swept multiple lawmakers out of office for sexual impropriety and poor office management. She appears to have willingly handed over to The Washington Post all legal documents she signed with Baker and emails pertaining to her office’s handling of Kain’s allegations against him.

She has reimbursed the U.S. Treasury for the roughly $5,000 her office doled out to Baker in severance, the Connecticut Post reported Friday.

Moving forward

She also told The Washington Post she plans to improve the way her office is managed. 

“What I did was not good enough and it didn’t protect [my staff] enough,” she said. “I’m hopeful now with this conversation and this coming out that I’ll be able to be much more direct and help other people in Congress understand the risks they are placing their staff at when they don’t think they are.”

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, whom Esty succeeded in the House, said Friday  he had spoken with the congresswoman.

“This clearly wasn’t handled the way it should have been. I talked to Elizabeth, and I’m glad she acknowledges this. Nobody working in a congressional office or any other setting should feel afraid to come to work,” he said. “Protecting victims of workplace harassment needs to come first, and the rules of Congress need to change to ensure that happens.”

Esty placed some of the blame for Baker’s delayed departure on difficult-to-navigate protocols from the Office of House Employment Counsel.

She told The Washington Post that OHEC pressured her to sign a nondisclosure agreement, which stretched out Baker’s employment by weeks. The system appeared designed to shield lawmakers who had acted improperly, not those trying to oust employees who had misbehaved, she said.

“Clearly that’s what it’s all set up to do — to protect the member of Congress whose bad behavior caused the problem,” she said.

“It felt wrong to me. … When I’m reading the documents and these drafts, it kept going through my mind, ‘This is not right. This is not what happened,’” she said.

A lead counsel at OHEC told The Washington Post the agency does not respond to media inquiries.

Bridget Bowman and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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