The House Ethics Committee declined to sanction outgoing Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) after investigating how she handled the dismissal of a top aide who faced serious allegations of abuse.
The panel said Esty took too long to investigate claims of misconduct by her chief of staff, Tony Baker, who left the office three months after Esty learned he had allegedly harassed and threatened to kill a former staff member he had dated. In a report released Thursday, the committee called Esty’s decision to have “close allies” conduct the investigation into Baker’s behavior a “poor choice” given their previous relationships with him and the woman he allegedly targeted, Anna Kain.
But the committee concluded these missteps were not serious enough to trigger disciplinary action and that Esty did not act improperly when she approved a roughly $5,000 severance for Baker in August 2016.
“Falling short of ideal practices . . . is not the same as violating House rules,” the report stated. “Based on the totality of the circumstances . . . the committee found that Representative Esty’s actions warrant no further action.”
The committee vote against sanctions was unanimous, the report said.
Baker’s drawn-out 2016 dismissal was revealed in media reports earlier this year, which prompted Esty not to seek reelection. The controversy was one of the few political #MeToo cases in which a member of Congress came under fire for how they handled allegations of harassment against a top aide.
Esty requested the ethics investigation and has expressed regrets over how she handled the episode with Baker.
“What I did was not good enough, and it didn’t protect [my staff] enough,” she told The Washington Post in March. “ . . . I’m hopeful now with this conversation and this coming out that I’ll be able to be much more direct and help other people in Congress understand the risks they are placing their staff at when they don’t think they are.”
After the report’s release, Esty said she was “gratified” that the review found that she had not broken House rules or standards of conduct.
“Knowing all that I have learned in the last two years about the prevalence of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, about the best practices to prevent and address such incidents, and about the impediments that existed then and still exist to reporting of concerns, I would do things differently if confronted with a similar situation now,” Esty said in a statement.
Baker had a drinking problem in 2016 but has been sober since and received treatment for problems with anger and substance abuse, said Andrew Ricci, a friend to whom he referred questions, in March.
The severance Baker received was a major topic of the ethics investigation. He also departed Capitol Hill with a letter of recommendation from Esty and a legal document that prevented her from disparaging him or discussing why he left.
The agreement was negotiated by the Office of House Employment Counsel after Esty sought its advice.
Lawmakers had received “little and inconsistent guidance” on severance payments at the time of Baker’s case and that entering into the agreement was “ill-advised” for Esty but not against House rules, the ethics committee said.
Its report offered lawmakers guidance on how to navigate similar situations.
“If a member determines their employee engaged in inappropriate behavior, appropriate disciplinary action should be taken,” it said. “The committee believes that no severance payments should be made to employees who are discharged due to their own unethical conduct.”