Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) — a vocal champion of the #MeToo movement — is the first federal female lawmaker of the #MeToo era to resign after a sexual harassment and misconduct scandal was revealed in her office.
The Congress member from Connecticut announced Monday she won’t seek reelection after reports surfaced that she let a former chief of staff stay on for months after discovering allegations he had harassed, abused, and threatened a female staffer.
Late last week, the Washington Post and Connecticut news outlets reported that Esty’s former chief of staff Tony Baker had been accused of harassing a senior aide named Anna Kain, who also worked for Esty. (Baker and Kain had dated in the past.)
The time between the revelations and Esty’s resignation was a matter of days, but the convoluted timeline of events leading up had been quietly brewing for years, out of the public eye.
In 2016, Esty learned of a threatening voicemail Baker had left Kain in which he had threatened to kill Kain, but it took Esty two months to launch an in-house investigation of Baker’s conduct, and another month after that before her former chief of staff left. When Baker did depart, he did so with severance pay and a job recommendation that he and Esty had co-written, according to the Washington Post.
The resulting scandal has been too much for Esty to weather. The Congress member, a co-sponsor of legislation to reform the current outdated system of reporting sexual harassment and staff misconduct on Capitol Hill, apologized to Kain and her constituents in a Facebook statement Monday.
“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,” Esty wrote. “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. In my final months in Congress, I will use my power to fight for action and meaningful change.”
To understand how this situation got bad enough for Esty to step down, Vox went through news reports to compile a timeline of the alleged abuse — and Esty’s response to it.
Timeline of Tony Baker’s alleged abuse against Anna Kain
Tony Baker and Anna Kain met around 2013, when they both started working in Esty’s DC office, and dated casually. Though Kain now alleges Baker abused and harassed her throughout 2014, the threatening voicemail that set off the chain of events leading to Esty’s resignation wouldn’t happen until two years later.
Here’s a timeline of the events leading up to the May 5, 2016, voicemail.
- January 2013: Anna Kain is hired by freshman Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) as a scheduler in her DC office after Kain worked on Esty’s 2012 campaign.
- 2013: Tony Baker and Kain start dating “casually” after meeting in Esty’s office. Baker is serving as Esty’s legislative director at this time.
- 2014: Baker is promoted to Esty’s chief of staff, and Kain is promoted to senior adviser. Kain is Baker’s subordinate.
- 2014: Kain later alleges being physically and verbally abused in Esty’s DC office throughout the year, after she and Baker were both promoted. Among Kain’s allegations detailed in an affidavit: that Baker had punched her in the back and “repeatedly screamed” at her “in the workplace” at Esty’s Washington office.
- Kain also alleges that Baker threatened to keep her from getting another job if she went to the Office of Congressional Ethics (the independent, nonpartisan office charged with investigating staff misconduct on Capitol Hill).
- March 2015: Kain leaves Esty’s office and takes a job at a Democratic consulting firm in DC.
- May 5, 2016: Current and former Esty staffers meet up for a reunion party in DC on Cinco De Mayo. It’s unclear whether Kain and Baker interacted with each other at the event, but afterward, an intoxicated Baker calls Kain’s cellphone more than 50 times, according to the Connecticut Post.
- Baker leaves a threatening voicemail for Kain, saying, “You better f-----g reply to me or I will f-----g kill you,” in the voicemail, a copy of which was provided to the Washington Post.
- May 6, 2016: Esty learns about Baker’s phone calls and the threatening voicemail from a former staffer, she later tells the Connecticut Mirror. The staffer, former chief of staff Julie Sweet, said she “had heard a number of reports about Baker’s behavior,” including Kain’s allegations.
Timeline of Esty’s response
Esty learned about Baker’s threatening voicemail the day after he left it, according to multiple reports. She confronted him soon after and spoke to Kain days later. But it still took her months to launch an in-house investigation into Baker’s conduct, during which he continued to work for her.
Here’s a timeline of the events after the May 5, 2016, voicemail.
- Around May 6, 2016: Esty “immediately” confronts Baker about the voicemail, and he does not deny the incident, she later tells the Courant. However, Esty doesn’t suspend Baker, instead recommending he get counseling or alcohol addiction help. She instead speaks to a Democratic lawyer named Joseph Sandler, who tells the her to start an in-house investigation, according to the Courant report.
- May 11, 2016: Kain speaks to Esty in detail about the abuse she says she suffered as a staffer, according to emails obtained by the Washington Post and Hartford Courant. The two communicate via phone and email, and Esty uses an old Yale University email account — not her official government email — to correspond with Kain.
- Esty enlists the help of former chief of staff Sweet to conduct the internal investigation.
- July 2016: Sweet contacts current and former staffers, including Kain. During the same month, Kain takes out a one-year protective order against Baker from DC police.
- Around July 20, 2016: Esty’s in-house investigation of Baker wraps up. She concludes “there was a pattern of verbally abusive behavior” and confirms Kain’s account of the alleged physical abuse.
- August 12, 2016: Baker’s last day at Esty’s office. He departs with $5,000 in severance pay and a recommendation letter that he and Esty had co-written, according to documents provided to the Washington Post. Esty also signed a legal document that prevented her from talking about why Baker had left her office or saying negative things about him.
- November 2016: Baker starts a new job at Sandy Hook Promise, a group advocating gun control measures. (He has been let go since the allegations about him went public.)
- March 30, 2018: The Connecticut Post publishes the first story on Esty’s handling of the Baker allegations, followed by stories from the Washington Post.
- March 30 to April 2, 2018: Esty’s colleagues call on her to resign, starting with her fellow Connecticut lawmakers. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reprimands Esty but does not explicitly say she should resign.
- April 2, 2018: Esty at first says she won’t step down and asks the House Ethics Committee to conduct a probe into how she handled the misconduct allegations in her office. Later that day, amid pressure from fellow Connecticut Democrats, she says she won’t seek reelection.
What current law says about what Esty should have done
Esty’s resignation underscores a persistent problem in Congress: There is still no easy way for staffers to report sexual harassment and workplace misconduct claims.
Congress has had a decades-long problem with sexual harassment and misconduct and how to deal with it. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say the current system is complex, confusing, and time-consuming. A bill to reform it recently passed the House. It is awaiting a vote in the Senate, but there’s no immediate path forward for it there, as it’s unclear whether Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will bring it to the floor.
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.
Many in Congress are fed up with the current system and the lack of action in the Senate to fix it, especially Esty’s fellow female lawmakers.
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.
Esty is a co-sponsor of that legislation, something she has promised to champion during her remaining time in Washington.
But could she have done anything different in her own office? At least one legal expert said that while Esty’s internal investigation of staff misconduct isn’t unusual, the length of time it ran is.
“I think it is perfectly appropriate to respond to an allegation of harassment with an investigation rather than firing the person after you receive an allegation,” said Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “Certainly the best practice is a very prompt investigation. Prompt shouldn’t be three months, but it’s also not three days.”
Martin said that from reading press coverage of the Esty scandal, it’s unclear whether Kain, as the victim, was ever made aware of the investigation’s findings and the fact that Baker was ultimately fired.
“It’s not clear whether anyone ever came back to her to say, ‘Here’s what we found, here’s what we’re doing,” Martin said. “Those are places where I think there’s room for legitimate criticism about how these matters were handled.”
But Martin said she thinks Esty deserves some credit for now being transparent to the press about how her office handled the situation.
“She seems to be legitimately engaged in a lot of questioning of her own behavior and legitimately seeking to try to make an example of herself in a way that might change the behavior of others in the future,” Martin said.