Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) announced on Monday she won’t seek reelection after reports that she took months to fire her chief of staff after he allegedly harassed and threatened a female staffer.
Last week, the Washington Post and other news outlets reported that Esty’s former chief of staff Tony Baker had been accused of harassing a female staffer named Anna Kain, who also worked for Esty (Baker and Kain had dated). In May 2016, Baker left Kain a voicemail in which he threatened to kill her if she didn’t respond to him, according to a recording provided to the Post. Soon after the voicemail, Kain reported the harassment to police and filed a restraining order.
Esty was alerted to the issue a week later, but she took months to fire Baker. When he left her office, she helped write a letter of recommendation for him.
The Congress member — who has spoken out in support of the #MeToo movement — initially resisted calls from fellow Democrats to step down, instead inviting the House Ethics Committee to review how she had handled Baker’s firing. But she announced Monday that she would not run for reelection. In a statement, Esty apologized to Kain and said she “should have done better”:
Too many women have been harmed by harassment in the workplace. In the terrible situation in my office, I could have and should have done better. To the survivor, I want to express my strongest apology for letting you down. In Congress, and workplaces across the country, we need stronger workplace protections and to provide employees with a platform to raise concerns, address problems, and work to reduce and eliminate such occurrences, in the first place.
Esty’s announcement underscores a persistent problem in Congress: There is still no easy way for staffers to report sexual harassment and workplace misconduct claims. In the past few weeks, House and Senate budget negotiators were hard at work hammering out the final version of a bill that would overhaul the process of reporting harassment on Capitol Hill.
But the reforms never made it into the massive omnibus bill. There’s no immediate path forward for it in the Senate, as it’s unclear whether Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will bring it to the floor.
In the #MeToo era, the reckoning in Congress has been slow
The Senate, in particular, has been slow to move on trying to fix the process of reporting harassment and misconduct allegations. The current system is complex and time-consuming.
Victims can pursue mediation and a settlement, which is often paid for with taxpayer money (one of the things the new bill is trying to change). Even so, victims often have to sign nondisclosure agreements that can prevent them from going public and naming the person harassing or abusing them.
In interviews with the Post, Esty in part blamed the process in Congress for why it took her so long to fire Baker.
“Clearly that’s what it’s all set up to do — to protect the member of Congress whose bad behavior caused the problem,” Esty told the Post. “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.’ ”
Esty’s agreement with her former chief of staff included “multiple secrecy provisions, a draft recommendation letter and his severance terms,” according to the Post. It also “at no point sought a formal response from Kain,” Baker’s accuser.
Many people in Congress are fed up with the current system and the lack of action in the Senate to fix it, especially women legislators.
Last week, all 22 women senators of both parties penned a letter to Senate leadership demanding the legislation go up for a vote on the Senate floor.
“Inaction is unacceptable when a survey shows that four out of 10 women congressional staffers believe that sexual harassment is a problem on Capitol Hill and one out of six women in the same survey responded that they have been the survivors of sexual harassment,” the letter read.
As Vox’s Jane Coaston reported, certain provisions of the bill were taken out of the must-pass spending bill at the last minute:
According to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, provisions of the legislation — which has bipartisan support — were even initially included in the omnibus bill President Trump signed on Friday but were stripped out at the last minute. Those provisions included major changes to the sexual harassment complaint process and a requirement that taxpayer funds used to settle harassment lawsuits be reimbursed.