Sen. Alex Kasser Ryan Caron King / CT Public Radio
Sen. Alex Kasser in early 2019, before changing her last name.. Ryan Caron King / CT Public Radio

Passage of a bill that broadens the definition of domestic violence to include “coercive control” came after a debate dogged by suspicions that one of its provisions might benefit a Greenwich state senator who has made coercive control a central claim in her divorce from a Wall Street executive.

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Friday night to pass Senate Bill 1091, a measure dubbed “Jennifer’s Law” in memory of Jennifer Dulos, the mother of five who disappeared two years ago and is presumed dead. Facing a murder charge, her estranged husband Fotis Dulos committed suicide.

Republicans attempted to rewrite the bill with an amendment that failed on an 89-52 straight party-line vote, calling it well-intended but flawed in its execution. The measure then passed on a 134-8 vote. The Senate had passed it, 35-1.

But throughout the House debate, Republican opposition seemed animated by a topic no one broached directly on the floor: a suspicion that the effective date of the coercive control portion of the bill was accelerated at the demand of Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich, who is in the third year of a contentious divorce from Seth Bergstein, a senior Morgan Stanley executive.

On Saturday, Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, acknowledged that was a concern among some Republicans, himself included.

“My understanding is that the effective date is moved back on her request from Oct. 1,” O’Dea said. “And I’ve been told that may have an impact on her current situation with her spouse. And that causes me concern, and I just hope that’s not true.”

My understanding is that the effective date is moved back on her request from Oct. 1. And I’ve been told that may have an impact on her current situation with her spouse. And that causes me concern, and I just hope that’s not true.”— Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan

O’Dea, who ultimately voted for passage, would not say who told him that the new definition of domestic violence might benefit Kasser, whose divorce trial is expected this summer. Kasser, the sponsor of a similar bill merged into the one that passed Friday, declined to talk about any impact on her divorce or whether she sought the change.

“Anyone who criticizes its effective date must be trying to change the subject,” Kasser said. “Victims of domestic violence are harmed and killed every day. Making the law effective immediately has no other purpose than to save lives. Is anyone against that?”

Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, a family-law practitioner and the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, supports adding coercive control to the definition of domestic violence, but he questioned why an amendment in the Senate had singled out that provision to take effect before other aspects of the legislation. He complained no one gave him an answer.

“Was there something else going on here?” Fishbein said during the floor debate. “This is not about Jennifer Dulos. Nicknaming this bill ‘Jennifer’s bill’ is a public relations escapade. That’s not good-faith legislation.”

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, a lawyer and adjunct faculty member at two universities, said he did not see how a law passed in June 2021 would materially affect a divorce filed in December 2018 and made public by Kasser in May 2019. But Fishbein said a judge might take notice of the change.

Under state ethics rules, there is no prohibition against lawmakers advocating a position that benefits themselves so long as it equally benefits others. Lawmakers often draw from personal experience to shape legislation, and the issue of coercive control is central to Kasser’s legislative advocacy and her divorce.

Kasser has said she felt coerced to remain with her husband after coming out to him as gay in 2010. Bergstein denies the accusation, which was made in court filings and other public statements, including an op-ed piece Kasser wrote for the Stamford Advocate shortly before her re-election to a second term in 2020.

Undisputed is that Kasser not only pushed hard to include coercive control in state law as her divorce proceeded, but a version of the bill she sponsored would have elevated its weight in court proceedings over child custody to a degree that concerned legal aid lawyers, the family law section of the Connecticut Bar Association and the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Anyone who criticizes its effective date must be trying to change the subject. Victims of domestic violence are harmed and killed every day. Making the law effective immediately has no other purpose than to save lives. Is anyone against that? ”— Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich

In a joint memo to the Judiciary Committee, they applauded the intention of her bill while warning of unintended consequences. It would have established “a new evidentiary hearing upon allegations of coercive control by a family or household member. We fully support courts more thoroughly considering domestic violence, including coercive control; however, this language is likely to cause more problems than it solves.”

The proposed mandates on changes to court procedures and the qualifications of expert witnesses in custody cases could cause delays and drive up the cost of litigation, a concern to litigants of lesser means. Once coercive control was found, the judge would have had too little discretion in determining what was in the best interest of the child, they wrote.

The version passed Friday maintains judicial discretion and generally addressed other concerns raised in the memo. It allows judges to consider subtle evidence of emotional abuse, not just physical abuse, in granting a protective order. Other provisions broaden the crimes of intimidation and require courts to offer more protection in domestic violence cases.

Making coercive control an element of family law, especially in cases of domestic violence, was supported by the state’s court system, which noted in public hearing testimony before the legislature that current law “falls short of giving the Court the authority to enter an order of protection based on nuanced signs of power and control or psychologically coercive behavior. 

“So, even if judges suspect emotional abuse, there is presently no provision in statute to grant the order on that basis. By adopting the proposed language, the Legislature will permit judges to elevate all levels of domestic violence to the scrutiny it deserves.”

Kasser hires Lanny Davis, former presidential crisis manager

Two years ago, Kasser posted on Facebook that she had filed for divorce and was in a committed romantic relationship with Nichola Samponaro. It included a photo of the couple posing by the state Capitol. It was a hint that the end of her marriage would play out in public.

Kasser’s legal team now includes Lanny Davis, the lawyer who became prominent as a special White House counsel defending Bill Clinton against the impeachment spurred by his affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky. The services offered by his firm, Trident DMG, include “full-contact reputation management” during litigation. He also is a partner in the law firm Davis, Goldberg  & Galper.

“I agreed to represent Alex Kasser after doing my due diligence and noting she has been subjected to a lot of media coming from the court case and its pleadings,” Davis said Saturday. “She asked me, ‘Can you help me correct the record?’”

Unsolicited, Trident DMG recently emailed one of her filings to reporters. It complained that Bergstein, with whom their three children reside, was not adequately sharing information about the children under the terms of a court-approved parenting plan.

In an interview Friday night, Kasser would not say if she had hired Davis or was aware of the public outreach. She was more forthcoming Saturday.

“I recently retained Lanny Davis because he’s an experienced attorney who wants to help set the record straight,” she said in an email. “Mr. Davis and the rest of my legal team have one goal: to resolve this divorce so I can be free from Seth Bergstein and he stops harassing my partner too.”

Kasser said in the email her husband used “his power and position to harm both me and her. It is no longer acceptable to shame people for their sexuality.”

Bergstein’s lawyer, Janet A. Battey, declined to say whether the new law would affect the divorce trial, which is largely focused on dividing the significant assets of two wealthy litigants. Bergstein has denied any threats or coercion directed at Kasser, a lawyer educated at the University of Chicago.

“Obviously, divorces can be difficult, and it is unfortunate that Alex has chosen for her own unknown reasons to continue to make and publicize patently false allegations and insinuations,” Battey said. “Mr. Bergstein trusts the legal system and the family court and trusts that the upcoming trial will reveal Alex’s narrative for what it is.”

During the House debate Friday, one of the bill’s supporters, Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, D-Avon, said the focus should be on how the bill will help victims of domestic abuse. Kavros DeGraw was a friend and neighbor to Dulos when they both lived in Farmington. Before her disappearance, Dulos had moved to New Canaan, part of Kasser’s district.

“We colloquially call this bill ‘Jennifer’s Law’ not just after Jennifer Farber Dulos, but also for all of the other Jennifers, the Jennifers whose names we will never say in this chamber, the Jennifers whom we have all known ourselves, perhaps the Jennifers that were our mothers, our sisters, our grandmothers.”

“And I find it troubling that we are not focusing on the real crux of this bill. And the reason why it is so critically important that we have the definition of coercive control as a criminal definition.”

California was the first state to include coercive control as a form of domestic violence, though others have references in statutes to emotional abuse as grounds for protective orders. Emotional abuse, advocates say, can be a harbinger of physical violence.

“And so this is our chance to further this cause, because women died yesterday, women are dying today, and they will die tomorrow,” Kavros DeGraw said. “We just reached the two year mark for Jennifer Farber Dulos on May 24. I know that, because I spoke with her just three days before she disappeared.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.