christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty speaks to reporters in November (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty issued an apology Thursday for failing to act sooner in 2016 when Tony Baker, her former chief of staff, was accused of harassing, threatening, and punching a female former staffer, Hearst reported Thursday.

“I am sorry that I failed to protect her and provide her with the safe and respectful work environment that every employee deserves,” Esty said in a statement.

Hearst’s Thursday story was followed shortly after by a separate report from the Washington Post. CTNewsJunkie has not confirmed details of either report, but Esty has released a statement in response, which is included below in its entirety.

Details from the two news stories indicate that Esty became aware of allegations against Baker, who had previously dated the victim, after an alcohol-infused reunion party that included current and former staffers on May 5, 2016.

According to the Hearst story:

It is not clear what, if any, interaction Baker had with the female staffer at the bar. But according to an affidavit for a protective order subsequently filed by the former staffer, Baker, now 36, called her cellphone about 50 times and left messages saying he would track her down and kill her.

According to the Washington Post, the victim, who provided a copy of the voicemails to the paper, filed a police report at the time detailing the threats and she obtained a 12-month restraining order against Baker.

According to the Post, Baker, on one of the recordings left for the victim, said, “You better f——-g reply to me or I will f——-g kill you.”

Esty commissioned an investigation that “showed a pattern of abusive behavior” by Baker dating back to 2014 when the victim was a member of her staff. The former staffer had left Esty’s office by March 2015.

Esty fired Baker on July 20, 2016.

According to the Washington Post, the allegations were brought to Esty’s attention within a week of the May 5 party, but it took until August for Baker to be vacated from her office. Esty told Hearst that she never actually heard the voicemails. The Post also reported that Baker accompanied Esty to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia from July 25 to 28, five days after he’d been officially fired.

Esty said she paid Baker a $5,000 severance and gave him a limited favorable recommendation, as was required by a nondisclosure agreement, for a job with Sandy Hook Promise in Ohio. She said that after she had opened an internal investigation in Baker’s conduct she eventually turned to the House counsel’s office and followed their recommendations.

From the Hearst story:

In the interviews, Esty insisted she followed the recommendations and procedures set forth by the House counsel’s office for terminating an employee — and that she had little choice in the matter.

But in doing so, she said, she came to understand the rules were aimed at protecting House members and the institution, even if it was “designed to cover it up, sweep it under the rug,” as she put it.

Esty told the Post, “It felt wrong to me . . . When I’m reading the documents and these drafts, it kept going through my mind, ‘This is not right. This is not what happened’.”

Esty says she has since repaid the U.S. Treasury the $5,000 that Baker received for severance and accepts blame for not acting more quickly to fire Baker.

Hearst Connecticut Media did not report the victim’s name, but said the protective order she sought against Baker stated that he threatened to kill her, punched her in the back — which Baker’s spokesman denied — and told her if she reported him she would never get another job.

Esty is up for re-election this November. At least two Republicans, Craig Diangelo and Manny Santos, are looking for the Republican Party’s nomination to challenge her.

According to the Post, by Baker’s last day on Aug. 12, “he and Esty had co-written a positive recommendation letter he could use in a job search and signed a legal document preventing her from disparaging him or discussing why he left. Baker went on to work for Sandy Hook Promise, the gun-control group created after the 2012 shooting in Esty’s district. He was dismissed from the group this week after The Post contacted him.”

Esty’s full statement:

To this survivor, and to anyone else on my team who was hurt by my failure to see what was going on in my office, I am so sorry.

I’ve asked myself over and over again, how did I not see this? How could I have let down so many people?

Equality and fairness are values I’ve held long before I came to Congress. Now that I am in Congress, it is my responsibility to run an office that is not only safe, but upholds those values and respects staff and their work on behalf of the people of the 5th Congressional District. I’m inspired by the courage this young woman is demonstrating by speaking up — in the one company town of DC — to say MeToo.

It took guts for my former staffer, this survivor, to speak up, and I want to support her and other survivors. I know that Survivors come first – we need to believe them and support them. And we need to include survivors and allies alike in the conversation about how to implement the changes necessary both in Congress and more broadly to prevent this from happening again.

I know firsthand that we need stronger workplace protections, and to provide employees with a platform to raise concerns. But that’s not enough. Those concerns must be listened to. And people in power must take action.

Now that I know, I must do better. We all must do better.

Blumenthal Opposes VA Privatization

bakdc via shutterstock
The Department of Veteran Affairs headquarters in Washington (bakdc via shutterstock)

Senator Richard Blumenthal weighed in this week on social media against privatizing the Department of Veterans Affairs health system after former VA Secretary David Shulkin said that advocates within the administration for privatization had him fired.

The New York Times published a column written by Shulkin the day after President Trump dismissed him in which he wrote that his support of government-run VA care had run up against advocates for privatization within the administration.

“They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed. That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans,” he wrote.

President Trump on Wednesday announced through Twitter that Shulkin was out and that he was nominating White House physician, Dr. Ronny Jackson, a rear admiral in the Navy, as his replacement.

Jackson will face Senate confirmation where his lack of experience in running a large bureaucracy is certain to be raised as an issue by Democrats on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Blumenthal, who serves on the panel, said that he would question Jackson about his views on privatization.

“We have to know if he can be counted on to oppose VA privatization schemes,” Blumenthal said on Twitter. “If Jackson proves unable or unwilling to oppose VA privatization, Pres. Trump should withdraw his nomination. We need a fighter for veterans, not a figurehead focused on corporate profits.”

Shulkin, who had served as V.A. undersecretary in the Obama Administration, was nominated by Trump to head the administration and unanimously confirmed by the Senate. He had come into disfavor by Trump after the department’s inspector general issued a report critical of a trip Shulkin took last year to Britain and Denmark.

The report found Shulkin spent much of the trip sightseeing and had improperly accepted tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

More than 9 million veterans rely on the VA hospitals and clinics for their health care. The department has been under heavy public scrutiny since 2014 over reports of negligence in the treatment of veterans — including long delays in providing care.

Veterans With ‘Bad Paper’ Discharges Now Eligible For Mental Health Services

A new federal law will allow hundreds of Connecticut veterans with “bad paper” discharges to be eligible for long-term mental health care for the first time, and thus reduce their suicide risk.

U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., the author of the law, said it will “change the lives of veterans.” The legislation was included in the federal budget signed last Friday by President Trump. Read more

DeLauro Seeks Info on ‘Cell-Cultured Foods’

Representative Rosa DeLauro is asking the Government Accountability Office for information that she hopes will help steer federal regulation of “cell-cultured foods” — an emerging technology that seeks a laboratory-grown alternative to the all-beef patty.

“While not yet commercially available, the potential introduction of this new type of product into the nation’s food supply and economy raises many important questions,” DeLauro says. “To date, it remains unclear exactly how cell-cultured food products should be regulated.”

Advocates for cell-cultured foods, or synthetic foods, see it as a more environmentally friendly and humane alternative to raising livestock or poultry. Essentially, the “meat” would be grown in a laboratory from cells.

Mark Post from Maastricht University in Holland estimated that his cell cultured meat production system could feed the world with beef using just 35,000 cows to provide the stem cells, according to a report issued in New Zealand.

A handful of startup companies in the United States and elsewhere are trying to bring cell-cultured foods to the commercial market, according to a 2017 article in Science Magazine.

Memphis Meats is looking to cell-cultured meatballs, hot dogs, and sausages on store shelves in about 5 years, and Perfect Day is targeting the end of 2017 to distribute cow-free dairy products. It’s not clear, however, which government agencies would oversee this potential new food supply.

DeLauro, a senior Democrat on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, sent a letter to the GAO requesting a report that would include information on what regulatory framework and labeling requirements currently exist — in the United States and elsewhere — for “cell-cultured foods,” which are also known as synthetic foods.

She also wants to know what unique challenges there may be to regulating cell-cultured foods. DeLauro notes that the nation’s regulatory system can be confusing as it is split between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture.