HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, an outspoken advocate for the #MeToo movement, has found herself in the awkward position of apologizing for not protecting female staffers in her Washington office who say they experienced violence, death threats and sexual harassment by her former chief of staff.
She dismissed calls Friday to step down.
The Democrat has issued press releases calling for tougher harassment protections for congressional staff and was among those demanding that then-U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan resign amid allegations of misconduct with staff. She issued her own public mea culpa Thursday following newspaper reports she did not suspend or fire the chief of staff until three months after learning about allegations against him in 2016.
Esty said she regrets not moving along an internal investigation into the allegations, which revealed more widespread alleged abuse, and regrets providing “even the slightest assistance to this individual as he sought a new job.”
In advance of the news stories published by Hearst Connecticut Media and the Washington Post, Esty made it a point to call or meet with representatives of at least three grassroots Connecticut groups that have been allies of hers on issues affecting women.
“I felt that she wanted to let me know what the situation was as someone who is involved in women’s issues,” said Cindy Wolfe Boynton, president of CT Now, a group that has endorsed Esty in past elections. “She did say more than once during the telephone call how she felt that she really did handle the situation poorly and was extremely remorseful for that.”
Boynton said it seemed Esty was “doing her best to handle the situation” in her office, but the group wants to know more about what happened.
“As things stand now, I think there’s a lot more information about the case that needs to come out,” she said.
In her apology, Esty said she was “horrified and angry” to learn in 2016 that a former employee had been harassed and physically harmed, allegedly by former chief of staff Tony Baker. She said she demanded Baker receive counseling.
She then conducted an internal review of her office practices, later learning “the threat of violence was not an isolated incident” but a pattern of behavior by Baker affecting many female staffers.
She said she was advised by the Office of House Employment Counsel to enter into a nondisclosure agreement with Baker, who then went to work as the Ohio state director of Sandy Hook Promise, an anti-gun violence advocacy group created in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Esty’s district. He no longer works for the group.
A spokesman for Baker told Hearst Connecticut Media and the Washington Post that he denies some of the allegations. A number listed for a Tony Baker in Columbus, Ohio, was disconnected.
Karen Jarmoc, executive director of the coalition against domestic violence, said Esty reached out to her last weekend and asked to meet at Jarmoc’s office.
“This is a really troubling circumstance, but my sense that I received from her on Monday is that her priority was looking out for the survivor ultimately. Initially there were clearly some missteps,” Jarmoc said. “What I received from her on Monday was a genuine desire to make things better” for employees the workplace.
In an editorial calling on Esty to resign, the Hartford Courant said Esty’s answers so far have been disappointing, saying “she has blamed the system and hasn’t taken nearly enough responsibility for her own actions.” The Courant added that “time was up for John Conyers and now time is up for Elizabeth Esty.”
JR Romano, the state’s Republican Party chairman, also has called on Esty to step down. The state GOP sent out emails, accusing Esty of being “complicit in covering up assault.”
Esty received mild criticism from fellow Democratic members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, with nearly all noting that Esty acknowledged she had made mistakes.
“I’m deeply disappointed. I’m just learning the facts,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal told reporters while attending an event in Connecticut.
Asked whether Esty should resign, the senator said, “what she does in the future is really a decision for her constituents. She needs to talk to her constituents.”