CONGRESS Critics say Esty ethics probe lacks transparency
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.
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.
U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty