The former Elizabeth Esty aide who was the victim of domestic violence — perpetrated by the Democratic congresswoman’s since-fired chief of staff — says the system for reporting abuse failed her.
"I shared my story, but this isn't about me,” Anna Kain told The Courant in an email Friday. “This is about a flawed system designed to protect powerful people, and that isolates and ignores those who need protection most.”
Kain was granted a restraining order against Tony Baker, whom she once dated, after she signed a sworn affidavit that the Esty chief of staff punched and threatened to kill her.
Up until this week, Baker was employed by Sandy Hook Promise in an advocacy role for the gun control group, a job he landed with a favorable recommendation from Esty.
Esty sent a letter Friday to her House Democratic colleagues, saying that the misconduct by her former chief of staff should be a cautionary tale for Congress to tighten up the way it handles domestic violence and sexual harassment. The three-term incumbent reiterated that she has no plans to step down.
“For those who have asked, I want to be clear that I am not resigning, that I have important work to do in Congress, including building on the lessons of this horrible series of events,” Esty said in a statement Friday.
In a written statement released to the media Friday, Baker said Esty was alone in helping him confront his alcoholism and other personal issues.
“In 2016, Elizabeth was the only person who stopped to ask me how I was doing and urged me to get help beyond just becoming sober,” Baker said. “I immediately sought comprehensive help, which has been invaluable in my life of recovery. I have a lot of respect for Anna and I agree that stories like hers need to be told.”
Contacted by The Courant, Baker referred questions a friend, Andrew Ricci, a media strategist in Washington, who said Baker disputes only the most serious charge made against him: that he was violent with Kain.
“The only thing that he has denied, outright and 100 percent, is the punching allegation,” Ricci said. “There are other things that he says he doesn’t think he did or said, but he’s not 100 percent sure.”
Kain, 29, shared a May 5, 2016, voicemail from Baker with the Washington Post, which has been investigating Esty’s handling of the incident and others for several months. Baker called Kain’s cell phone some 50 times that night.
“You better f-----g reply to me or I will f-----g kill you,” Baker said in the message.
Esty has said she confronted Baker the following day, and she told The Courant that he didn’t deny the allegations against him. But, instead of suspending him immediately, which Esty now said she should have done — and apologized for not doing — the Democrat ordered an internal investigation.
Another former Esty staffer, who requested anonymity, told The Courant that Baker was sitting in the room when Esty informed her aides that an internal investigation was being conducted and that they might be questioned.
“That was all done under a pretense,” the staffer said of the review.
Baker remained on Esty’s staff for another three months before he was dismissed and paid $5,000 in severance.
Kain worked on Esty’s 2012 campaign and was hired as a D.C. scheduler for the then-freshman congresswoman in January 2013. She was promoted to senior adviser before leaving the office in March 2015.
Kain called Friday for the Senate to adopt #MeToo legislation, already passed by the House, that includes mandatory training to stop sexual harassment. Esty had been a co-sponsor of the legislation.
“Abuse and harassment occurs in congressional offices far too often, and this problem extends beyond Members of Congress themselves,” Kain said. “If you work on the Hill and are going through this, I want you to know that it's real, it's a problem, and nothing about it is okay. I hear you and I believe you. It is not your fault and you are not alone. And you are stronger than you think you are."
The day after the Esty bombshell, some of Esty’s congressional colleagues broke their silence.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he was “deeply disappointed” when asked if she should heed calls to step down.
“She should talk to her constituents. It’s their decision not mine. I need to know more and so do her constituents. Clearly and unquestionably there should be no tolerance for harassment or assault in any workplace at any time,’’ he said.
Blumenthal said his office has strong policies to protect staffers and mete out punishment, which he said have only been used once in his seven years in the Senate when an employee kept asking a co-worker on a date after the person said “no.” The employee no longer works in the office and was not given any severance, Blumenthal said, adding that there was no non-disclosure agreement either.
Even before scandal hit Esty, Republicans had figured that their best chance to win their first congressional race in Connecticut since 2006 would be in the 5th District. The race drew tepid interest, with former Meriden Mayor Manny Santos currently the only declared candidate.
Now, the GOP is suddenly emboldened, with former state Rep. Dan Carter of Bethel saying he is giving serious consideration to a run.
“It was really interesting that she would recommend someone from her office that had a history of violence to an organization that is dedicating to preventing violence,” Carter said of Baker’s work for Sandy Hook Promise.
Another name that was bandied about Friday is Dr. William Petit Jr., the lone survivor of a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire in which his wife and two daughters were raped and murdered. In 2010, Esty lost re-election bid for the state legislature when she voted to support the repeal of the death penalty, with Petit supporting her opponent.
Petit, now a state legislator, declined to comment Friday.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who is from Cheshire like Esty, said Esty owned up to her mistake and stopped short of criticizing her.
"This clearly wasn't handled the way it should have been,” Murphy said in a statement to the Courant. “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. Protecting victims of workplace harassment needs to come first, and the rules of Congress need to change to ensure that happens."
Murphy is up for re-election this November, along with Esty, who represents the north and west parts of the state.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro rallied behind Esty.
“Congresswoman Esty has a strong record of supporting women’s issues,” DeLauro said in a statement Friday. “As she has said she wishes she had handled this situation differently and is making changes in her office. This story is heartbreaking. People should be safe from harm everywhere they go—especially at their workplace.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy echoed Murphy and DeLauro in a statement.
"Congresswoman Esty said that she should have handled this situation differently and I agree,” Malloy said. “There is absolutely no place for sexual harassment or abusive behavior in the workplace—whether that be the halls of Congress, state houses, or the White House. Every woman--every person--deserves to feel safe in their places of employment. The fact is that there is more work to be done to make this a reality. And I commend this young woman, like the thousands of other brave women of the #MeToo movement, for having the courage to come forward and give voice to victims of harassment. Our society as a whole is stronger because of their strength."
In addition to state GOP Chairman J.R. Romano, the National Republican Congressional Committee called for Esty’s resignation.
“Elizabeth Esty orchestrated one of the most disturbing Washington cover-ups in recent memory,” NRCC spokesman Chris Martin said. “There is no place for someone who protects abusers in Congress, and she should resign immediately.”
A prominent liberal blogger from Esty’s district, Alfonso Robinson of Danbury, joined those critics Friday in a Twitter post.
“To say that I'm outraged would be an understatement...if Democrats called for Al Franken to resign, shouldn't lawmakers demand that Esty step down as well (paging Kirsten Gillibrand),” Robinson wrote.
Tom Swan, who is the executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group and has managed campaigns for Democrats, said he’s “not ready ready to jump off” the ship yet. At the same time, he said, Esty is vulnerable.
“It’s clear the amount of attention and all is something that would be very difficult for any candidate in a swing seat to survive,” Swan told the Courant. “And while Representative Esty admitted that she made mistakes and all, I’m not sure what shes thinks those mistakes are and what she would do differently.”
State Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, who is from Esty’s hometown, has spoken publicly about being the victim of sexual assault in the workplace. She told the Courant Friday that she spoke to Esty about the situation.
“I was deeply disappointed and disheartened to learn of the harassment within Congresswomen Esty's office, and the lack of decisive action to remove the offender from his position,” Linehan said. “I reached out to Representative Esty as I felt it was vital she hear first-hand from a survivor of workplace harassment. She listened to me intently, not only as a survivor, but also as a state lawmaker and a constituent.”
Linehan said the problem goes beyond Esty’s office.
“This troubling matter shines yet another spotlight on why we continue to fight for stronger protections for those not always able to speak up for themselves,” she said. “We must work together to create a clear legal pathway for employers to take action, to eliminate the roadblocks victims face in coming forward, and to create mechanisms for swift resolution - while increasing penalties for perpetrators and not allowing a place for them to hide.
Esty, who has publicly championed #MeToo legislation for Congress, told The Courant Thursday night that she deeply regrets the severance payment to Baker.
The former state legislator said she wrote a personal check to the U.S. Treasury for $5,000 to reimburse the federal government.
She characterized it as commonplace for severance to be paid to top congressional employees as part of a non-disclosure agreement, saying it is common for a chief of staff to have the keys to lawmakers’ apartments, tax filings and other personal records.
At the time, Esty said, she has misgivings about signing the NDA, which she recently broke when she was questioned by the Washington Post. She said the language of the NDA agreements struck her as sweeping issues under the rug and are tailored more toward male members of Congress.
“I really wasn’t conscious of how much power there was and how I needed to be more on guard,” Esty said of Baker’s misconduct.
The other former Esty staffer, who spoke to the Courant on the condition of anonymity, said the congresswoman urged aides to abide by the non-disclosure agreement and avoid gossip. The person said that Esty told staffers that it was in the best interests of Kain and the office.