Representative Elizabeth Esty, a Connecticut Democrat who has been an advocate for women’s issues and a critic of colleagues accused of sexual harassment amid the “Me Too” reckoning, has come under fire for her failure to promptly dismiss a top aide accused of sexual misconduct.
On May 5, 2016, Esty’s chief of staff Tony Baker called Anna Kain, a former Esty aide he had once dated, roughly 50 times and left a threatening voicemail. “You better fucking reply to me or I will fucking kill you,” he said in the recording, according to the Washington Post. Kain filed a police report and obtained a 12-month restraining order against Baker. In the petition for a restraining order, she said that when she worked as Esty’s senior adviser in 2014, Baker had punched her in the back, sexually harassed her, and “repeatedly screamed” at her in Esty’s Capitol Hill office. She said she did not report the abuse to Esty or the House Ethics Committee at the time because she was afraid for her safety.
The congresswoman learned about Kain’s allegations days after Baker left the threatening voicemail, yet she did not immediately fire or suspend her chief of staff. Instead, she said she required him to seek help for alcohol abuse and anger management as she commissioned an investigation into the abuse claims. Baker left three months later with a $5,000 severance and a positive recommendation that he used to secure a job with the group Sandy Hook Promise.
Esty told the Connecticut Post, which broke the story, that she accepts blame for failing to dismiss Baker more promptly, but she also said she was pressured by the Office of House Employment Counsel to sign a nondisclosure agreement with her employee. Esty, a Yale-educated lawyer, said it appeared the termination process was set up to shield those accused of harassment.
“Clearly that’s what it’s all set up to do — to protect the member of Congress whose bad behavior caused the problem,” Esty 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 provided the Post with a copy of the agreement with Baker, which barred her from disparaging him or discussing why he left, and included a draft recommendation letter and severance terms. Esty said she told Baker she wouldn’t recommend him for a job in Washington, and when Sandy Hook Promise inquired about him she provided a “limited” recommendation, that met the NDA’s requirements. The gun-control group dismissed him this week after he was contacted by reporters.
OHEC referred questions about the matter to the Committee on House Administration, which said in a statement that OHEC “serves to provide advice to House employing offices on employment policies and practices” and that “ultimately, each member makes the final decision for how a case against the office is handled and an employee’s employment status.”
Baker’s friend and spokesperson, Andrew Ricci, disputed that he had struck Kain, but not her other allegations. He said Baker had a drinking problem at the time but has subsequently received treatment.
“He’s spent a lot of time over the past two years becoming a stronger person,” Ricci said. “I know he’s been living a sober life, and I can tell you anger management was really helpful.”
Esty said she’s reimbursed the U.S. Treasury for Baker’s $5,000 severance, and hopes she will be able to help others in Congress understand why such situations must be handled differently. “To this survivor, and to anyone else on my team who was hurt by my failure to see what was going on in my office, I am so sorry,” she said. “I’ve asked myself over and over again, how did I not see this? How could I have let down so many people?”
Following reports of widespread sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, and complaints about how those allegations are handled, the House passed legislation to overhaul the reporting process in February. However, there’s been no movement on the bill in the Senate, prompting all 22 female senators to write a letter this week demanding that the leadership bring the legislation up for a vote.