Don Pesci: A Conn. congresswoman's unusual "Metoo'' case

Editor's note: Congresswoman Esty announced yesterday she would not seek re-election.

Stories like this open a window into sealed rooms in which the usual favorable campaign propaganda is produced by the truckload.

This one, which ran in the Washington Post, is not good news for Connecticut U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, most recently seen bobbing her head in assent to a vigorous attack on the National Rifle Association (NRA) by a teenage rabble rouser in Washington DC.

The Post story begins with a knock-out lede: “The threat from Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s chief of staff arrived in a voice mail.

“’You better f-----g reply to me or I will f-----g kill you,’ Tony Baker said in the May 5, 2016, recording left for Anna Kain, a former Esty aide Baker had once dated.”

Kain alerted the police, according to the Post story, “filed a report for felony threats and obtained a 12-month restraining order against Baker.”

A week later, Esty found out about the episode, and “… rather than firing or suspending Baker, the congresswoman consulted her personal attorneys and advisers, she said. She also spoke to Kain on May 11, emails show; Kain said she provided detailed allegations that Baker had punched, berated and sexually harassed her in Esty’s Capitol Hill office throughout 2014, while she worked as Esty’s senior adviser… On May 5, 2016, Baker called Kain approximately 50 times and said he would ‘find her’ and ‘kill her,’ she alleged in the petition.”

Three months after the reported abuse, Kain bade Esty goodbye, the congresswoman having provided him with a favorable job recommendation. Kane found employment with the Ohio branch of Sandy Hook Promise (SHP), an organization formed after the slaughter of school children and staff of the Sandy Hook Elementary School that agitates in favor of gun control and school safety. Before hiring Baker, SHP contacted Esty by phone.

We do not know if there is a record of the conversation -- SHP’s spokesperson was unavailable for comment when the Post story ran -- but it seems reasonable to assume that Esty had not warned officials at SHP that their hire had assaulted and threatened women, was an alcoholic and had exhibited brutal and violent tendencies. Esty had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Baker. The penalties for breaking contracts superseded any political backlash that might have damaged Esty’s career as both a third term Congresswoman and an ardent defender of women’s rights in the post-Weinstein #metoo era.   

Esty retained Baker in her office for three months after she had full knowledge of her chief of staff’s assaults and life-threatening e-mails. On the advice of counsel, she signed a non-disclosure agreement that would protect both her and Baker from the indignity of answering media inquiries. And, as part of the agreed upon separation, Esty recommended Baker to Sandy Hook Promise as a promising hire. For all of this, Esty is deeply sorry.

Will sorry be enough? Esty is, after all, a woman who has placed herself on the post—#metoo barricades. Her mistake was simply listening to the lawyers -- Esty is also a lawyer – and not acting in the moment as her conscience prompted her. If she is on the left side of the political barricades, why should unsavory incidents such as these cost her a well-established position of eminence within the social progressive movement she has ridden like a hobby horse into re-election efforts for three, possibly four terms in the #metoo inspired Democrat Party? “Esty said she plans to advocate for greater accountability in how congressional offices are managed,” the Post advises, closing out the tawdry tale.

Republicans already are waving Esty’s head on their campaign pikes, and Democrat support for the beleaguered Esty is flaccid. Executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, most often the last passenger to jump overboard on a sinking ship, said he’s “not ready to jump off” the ship yet. U.S. Senator Dick Blumenthal was cautiously unoptimistic. “I’m deeply disappointed,” said the moral conscience of the Senate. “She should talk to her constituents. It’s their decision not mine. I need to know more and so do her constituents.” The always eupeptic U.S. Senator Chris Murphy said, “I talked to Elizabeth, and I'm glad she acknowledges this [that mistakes were made]. Nobody working in a congressional office or any other setting should feel afraid to come to work. Protecting victims of workplace harassment needs to come first, and the rules of Congress need to change to ensure that happens."

Esty has said she has no intention of resigning her position in the U.S. House. Is it presumptuous to suppose that the congressional reforms Murphy believes are necessary might be more quickly adopted if Esty did resign?

Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based columnist and frequent contributor to New England Diary,