Ethics Committee Uses Elizabeth Esty Report to Provide Guidance

Retiring Connecticut Democrat paid severance to staffer, which report addresses

The House Ethics Committee report on the case of Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., provides general guidance on how to handle staffer settlement issues. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Ethics Committee released its report Thursday into Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s handling of a former chief of staff who harassed and threatened another staffer. The committee also used the report to provide general guidance on the ideal response when members learn of allegations of inappropriate or discriminatory behavior by a House employee.

Reports broke in April that it took her three months to fire her former chief of staff, Tony Baker, who had harassed and even left a death threat over voice mail to one of his subordinates in Esty’s office, Anna Kain. The two had previously dated.

But instead of firing Baker, Esty kept him on her payroll for three months, paid him severance from her congressional fund, and helped Baker land a job as Ohio director of the gun control group Sandy Hook Promise.

Esty asked the House Ethics Committee to open the inquiry into how she handled abuse, battery, and sexual harassment allegations against her former chief of staff.

The House Ethics Committee found that while Esty took positive steps, including initiating an investigation and ultimately removing Tony Baker from the office, the investigation took too long and was conducted by a selection of inappropriate people.

“Her selection of her close allies, who had significant pre-existing relationships with both Mr. Baker and Former Staffer A, to conduct the investigation was a poor choice,” says the report.

The committee determined that Esty’s lump-sum payment of $5,041.67 to Baker did not violate House Rules or standards of conduct, partly because there was not enough guidance for members on how to handle severance payments.

“The Committee acknowledges that there was little and inconsistent guidance on severance payments available to the House community at the time Representative Esty paid severance to Mr. Baker,” says the report.

According to the report, Esty expressed regret for entering into the agreement with Baker, which included non-disparagement and non-disclosure provisions, and an agreement to provide a limited reference and letter of recommendation for jobs.

The Ethics panel determined that there was “no question” that Baker was abusive to another staffer and that his actions “did not reflect creditably on Representative Esty’s office or the House as a whole.” Because Baker is no longer a House employee, the committee did not have jurisdiction to investigate him, which led the panel to focus on if “Esty’s actions — or lack thereof — in connection with Mr. Baker’s behavior violated applicable ethics standards.”

“Representative Esty could have better handled the situation when, after learning of Mr. Baker’s inappropriate behavior towards Former Staffer A, she continued to employ him with no changes to his role or responsibilities and leisurely conducted an opaque ‘review of management practices’ by close friends who were uncompensated,” says the report.

Griffin Connolly contributed to this report.

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