CON­GRESS Crit­ics say Esty ethics probe lacks trans­parency

The Norwalk Hour - - NEWS - By Rob Ryser rryser@new­stimes.com 203-731-3342

Six months since U.S. Rep. El­iz­a­beth Esty asked for a prompt and open ethics in­ves­ti­ga­tion about her role in cov­er­ing up an of­fice abuse scan­dal, the re­view by her col­leagues in Con­gress has been slow and se­cre­tive.

The top law­maker and two of­fi­cials in charge of the House ethics re­view process refuse to say whether an Esty ethics in­ves­ti­ga­tion even ex­ists, let alone an­swer when it will wrap up or how much of it will be made pub­lic.

That con­cerns one­time Esty aide Anna Kain, whose life was threat­ened in 2016 by Esty’s former chief of staff, Tony Baker. Esty’s re­sponse af­ter hear­ing the al­le­ga­tion was to keep Baker on staff for three more months, pay him $5,000 sev­er­ance, rec­om­mend him for a new job with Sandy Hook Prom­ise, and keep the scan­dal quiet un­til Kain took her story to news­pa­pers in March.

“The (House) ethics com­mit­tee has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to take their in­ves­ti­ga­tion se­ri­ously and work with ex­pe­di­ency,” Kain said dur­ing an in­ter­view last week from Wash­ing­ton, where she works for a po­lit­i­cal con­sult­ing firm. “Do­ing so would make clear their de­sire to in­form them­selves and im­prove the process.”

The stealth char­ac­ter of the Esty ethics in­ves­ti­ga­tion also con­cerns Manny San­tos, the GOP can­di­date run­ning to re­place Esty as the 5th District’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive. He is hop­ing to be­come the Con­necti­cut Con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion’s only Repub­li­can in Wash­ing­ton.

“There is not enough trans­parency in this process, and frankly we would not need all of this if Esty did what was right and re­moved Tony Baker im­me­di­ately and give Anna Kain the re­spect she de­serves,” San­tos said.

A Wash­ing­ton watch­dog group agrees.

“The facts, in­clud­ing Con­gress­woman Esty’s own pub­lic state­ments, are clear, dis­turb­ing and in­crim­i­nat­ing for Esty,” said Ken­dra Arnold, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Foun­da­tion for Ac­count­abil­ity and Civic Trust. “While we un­der­stand in­ves­ti­ga­tions take some time, we also ex­pect our House mem­bers to be held ac­count­able for se­ri­ous ethic breaches in a timely man­ner, and we fully ex­pect the Of­fice of Con­gres­sional Ethics to act on this im­por­tant case soon.”

Calls for ac­tion on the Etsy in­ves­ti­ga­tion fol­low the highly charged de­bate over a decades-old sex­ual as­sault al­le­ga­tion against Brett Ka­vanaugh, who was con­firmed by the Se­nate and sworn in as a Supreme Court jus­tice on Oct. 6.

The Ka­vanaugh de­bate el­e­vated the al­ready high­pro­file war on sex­ual abuse cham­pi­oned by the #MeToo move­ment.

Esty, a Demo­crat, told Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia last week she has an­swered every ques­tion from the House Ethics Com­mit­tee about her con­duct, and she is do­ing ev­ery­thing she can to en­cour­age a trans­par­ent and timely re­view of a scan­dal that forced her to drop plans to run for a fourth term.

But Esty would not say whether mem­bers of her staff had an­swered ethics com­mit­tee ques­tions, or whether she would re­lease the find­ings of the re­view.

“I am do­ing ev­ery­thing in my power to get them to do a full and fair in­ves­ti­ga­tion to see if I broke any law or rule or reg­u­la­tion,” Esty said.

U.S. Rep. Su­san Brooks, an In­di­ana Repub­li­can who chairs the House Com­mit­tee on Ethics and is a friend of Esty’s, re­ferred ques­tions to Tom Rust, the chief coun­sel and staff di­rec­tor of the com­mit­tee, who re­fused to com­ment on the Esty in­ves­ti­ga­tion, say­ing the process was con­fi­den­tial.

Cau­tion­ary tale

At stake is whether any lessons can be ex­tracted from Esty’s ac­tions, which she said were guided by the House Em­ploy­ment Coun­sel, but which she said she now re­grets as mis­takes.

Also at stake is whether Esty’s cau­tion­ary tale will help change a Wash­ing­ton cul­ture that vic­tims’ ad­vo­cates say pro­tects those in power at the ex­pense of those who are pow­er­less.

“I think ac­count­abil­ity re­quires trans­parency,” said Kain, who is part of a 1,500-mem­ber group of former Capi­tol Hill staff mem­bers who are lob­by­ing to re­form a 1995 law gov­ern­ing abuse al­le­ga­tions against Con­gress.

“The cul­ture of se­crecy has ex­isted be­cause for too long this has not been some­thing peo­ple have felt safe talk­ing about.”

The House and Se­nate are stalled in ef­forts to up­date the 1995 Con­gres­sional Ac­count­abil­ity Act. Esty, who was a co-spon­sor of a House bill that passed in Fe­bru­ary to give vic­tims of sex­ual ha­rass­ment in Con­gress a safe place to turn, said the leg­is­la­tion stalled be­cause a ver­sion of the bill passed in the Se­nate was too “wa­tered down.”

“The most im­por­tant piece in the House bill pro­vides the vic­tim im­me­di­ate ac­cess to a ded­i­cated ad­vo­cate to give proper le­gal con­sul­ta­tion, rep­re­sen­ta­tion and as­sis­tance,” Esty said.

Mean­while, time is short be­fore the Nov. 6 elec­tion of a new Con­gress. Kain is con­cerned that work on bills this year will be lost.

Qui­eter than ex­pected

The Esty scan­dal has not been an is­sue so far in the 5th District race, as some ob­servers pre­dicted it would be in the spring.

For her part, Esty has kept a low pro­file, re­fund­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in con­tri­bu­tions to sup­port­ers, and stay­ing out of the cam­paign of Demo­crat Ja­hana Hayes, who is fa­vored to re­place her.

Nor have Repub­li­cans made Esty an is­sue, in part be­cause out­go­ing Demo­cratic Gov. Dan­nel P. Mal­loy has been a more pop­u­lar tar­get for crit­i­cism.

Hayes de­clined to com­ment last week on the pace of Esty’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Dur­ing a pri­mary de­bate in early Au­gust, Hayes said she wanted to learn more about the process Esty fol­lowed to fire Baker, but Hayes would not have given Baker a fa­vor­able job rec­om­men­da­tion.

“I would have fired him and let the chips fall where they may,” Hayes said at the time.

Carol Kaliff / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

U.S. Rep. El­iz­a­beth Esty

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