Politics

Connecticut state Sen. Alex Kasser resigns, blames bitter divorce battle waged by Morgan Stanley executive husband

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Key Points
  • Connecticut state Sen. Alex Kasser announced that she is resigning her seat, which represents Greenwich and parts of Stamford and New Canaan.
  • Kasser said her ability to do her job has been harmed by a divorce battle being waged by her husband, Seth Bergstein, a top Morgan Stanley executive.
  • Kasser recently hired attorney Robert Cohen, who also represents Melinda Gates in her split from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Cohen previously represented the first two wives of ex-President Donald Trump.
Connecticut state Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich.
Source: Daniel Schubert

Connecticut state Sen. Alex Kasser announced Tuesday she is resigning, saying her ability to do her job has been harmed by a bitter divorce battle being waged by her husband, Seth Bergstein, a top Morgan Stanley executive.

In her resignation statement posted on Medium, the Democrat from Greenwich wrote: "Seth uses his powerful position at Morgan Stanley to enable his conduct, so I must work even harder to fight for my freedom."

The stunning move comes two years after Kasser went public with her romantic relationship with a woman who had previously run her first Senate campaign and then briefly worked in her legislative office. Kasser told her husband more than a decade ago told she is a lesbian, according to an op-ed she wrote in The Stamford Advocate newspaper last fall.

Kasser, 54, charged on Tuesday that Bergstein "has tried to destroy" that same-sex partner, Nichola Samponaro, "with lies about our relationship and harassing court motions that mention her 56 times for no relevant reason — she had nothing to do with ending my marriage."

"I will not stay silent as a homophobic, entitled man attacks my partner," Kasser said.

Bergstein, 55, is a senior managing director and head of global services at Morgan Stanley.

Kasser, who told CNBC she no longer has contact with her three children with Bergstein, also wrote, "In addition, I can no longer live or work in Greenwich as it is loaded with memories of the 20 years I spent raising my children here."

"It is too painful to be in Greenwich now that I've been erased from their lives, just as their father promised would happen if I ever left him," Kasser wrote.

Kasser's surprise resignation came a month after CNBC revealed that she added to her litigation team New York attorney Robert Cohen, who represents Melinda Gates in her megabillion-dollar split from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Cohen also previously represented Ivana Trump and Marla Maples, the first and second wives of ex-President Donald Trump.

The senator's announcement also comes as she prepares for her divorce trial, set to begin in September in Stamford Superior Court, where Cohen and her other lawyers have sought to depose three Morgan Stanley employees over what they have suggested were improper efforts by the investment bank to obtain personal financial information from her.

"It is with deep sadness that I announce my resignation as State Senator. Serving the residents of Connecticut's 36th Senate district has been a profound honor and a great joy. However, due to personal circumstances, I cannot continue," Kasser wrote in the statement.

"For nearly three years, I've been trying to divorce Seth Bergstein. As all survivors of domestic abuse know, emancipating ourselves is an epic struggle that takes years, requires unflinching courage and all our resources — mental, physical, and financial," she wrote.

"Because of the enormous time and energy this consumes, I can no longer serve my constituents to my fullest ability."

Bergstein did not immediately return a request for comment.

But his matrimonial lawyer, Janet Battey, in an email response to CNBC said, "Ms. Kasser's outrageous allegations and narrative couldn't be further from the truth."

"Ms. Kasser sadly continues to wage a public battle in the press while simultaneously dragging out the court proceedings," Battey said. "Throughout the marriage, Ms. Kasser described Seth as a devoted father and patient and loving husband. Seth and his three children sought to keep this matter private, but Ms. Kasser continues to make blatantly false public statements in furtherance of her own agenda."

"Mr. Bergstein trusts the legal system and family court and that the upcoming trial will reveal Ms. Kasser's narrative for what it is."

A Morgan Stanley spokeswoman declined to comment on the resignation announcement.

Kasser made a splash in 2018 when she became the first Democrat in nearly 90 years to win the 36th District Senate seat, which includes Greenwich and parts of Stamford and New Canaan.

Her narrow victory helped Democrats end two years of splitting control of the state Senate with Republicans.

Last November, she doubled her margin of victory to 2.6% to win reelection to another two-year term. Kasser said a special election would determine her successor.

Democrats currently hold a solid majority of 24 seats in the Senate, with Republicans holding just 12 seats.

In an interview with CNBC, Kasser said her divorce case "has become such a dominant feature in my life that I can't do my job. It prohibits me from doing my job."

Asked why she had gone into such detail in her statement about the reason for her leaving office, Kasser said, "First of all, I have a duty to my constituents and to the public to explain my resignation."

"And I'm fighting not just for myself, but for everybody in this situation, and to use my voice and whatever I can bring to the table."

"I am truly sad. I am truly disappointed" about having to resign, she said.

But, Kasser added, "This is not just me. There are literally thousands of women in similar situations. This is not a unique case."

Kasser declined to give specific examples of Bergstein's conduct toward her, citing the advice of her lawyers.

Those now include Lanny Davis, the Washington attorney who was special counsel to then-President Bill Clinton.

In her op-ed last October, Kasser wrote, "Ten years ago I told my husband I was gay and asked for a divorce." She wrote that Bergstein did not accept the news, but instead "said if I divorced him, he'd take full custody of our kids and use my sexuality against me in court."

"His words paralyzed me, which is exactly the power of coercive control," Kasser wrote. "We do not 'choose' to stay. We think we have no choice. I stayed for eight more years."

In her resignation announcement, Kasser said she was "particularly proud" of introducing and winning passage of "Jennifer's Law," which expanded Connecticut's legal definition of domestic violence to include coercive control by a partner.

Coercive control is defined as a partner doing things that include withholding money or engaging in a threatening pattern of behavior to prevent the other partner from leaving the relationship.

Jennifer's Law is named after one of Kasser's constituents, Jennifer Dulos, a mother of five who is presumed to have been killed by her estranged husband, real estate developer Fotis Dulos.

Jennifer Dulos, whose body had never been found, was in the middle of a protracted divorce and child custody battle when she vanished in May 2019. Fotis Dulos died by suicide in January 2020 while facing murder and kidnapping charges in her death.

Kasser's statement said Jennifer's Law will help people who are "trapped in an abusive situation, as I was."

In her interview, Kasser said that cases of coercive control can involve "financial pressure, pressure to give up their financial control to their partner, or they're cut off from their own money."

"They're threatened that they or their children or someone they love will be harmed," she said, "And, poisoning children against the other parent."

Kasser said that in her own case, she has not had contact with her children for some time.

"No, they've been erased from my life," she said, without providing details of how that happened. Kasser has two sons, ages 23 and 20, and a 17-year-old daughter with Bergstein.

Kasser also said that coercive control can involve "litigation harassment" in divorce cases, such as "filing motions with false allegations and innuendo to destroy a person's reputation, spread lies about them and to intimidate them and force them to spend money on lawyers."

"To get somebody to surrender and break them," Kasser said.

Her own divorce has dragged on for more than 2½ years and involved more than 270 legal filings.

"Abusers don't just go after their victims," Kasser said. "They go after everyone their victim cares about."

She said Bergstein has subpoenaed her partner Samponaro, and "he deposed her" in the divorce, forcing her to hire an attorney.

Kasser says she and Samponaro — a real estate saleswoman who served as her 2018 campaign manager and later briefly as an assistant in her Senate office — became romantically involved only after she sued Bergstein for divorce in late 2018 and after Samponaro left her job in Kasser's office.

"I want to be very clear, we did not have an affair, and to be very clear, Nichola did not have anything to do with the breakdown of my marriage," Kasser said.

In 2019, CNBC revealed that court filings in the divorce included an email in which Bergstein offered to commit $222,000 "from Morgan Stanley earnings for the next 2 years" to pay her personal and professional budget. The offer came before Kasser split with him.

Some of that money, Bergstein wrote, could be used to pay for Samponaro's salary and that of another legislative aide.

Bergstein suggested funneling the money through a private company that at one point was owned by Kasser's mother, or through a limited liability corporation, and said there should be restrictions in what the money was used for.

Bergstein's matrimonial lawyer Battey told CNBC at the time that the court filing by Kasser's lawyer cited "out of context" quotes from the email and said his desire to avoid creating a conflict with Morgan Stanley's compliance rules led him to outline restrictions for the use of his money by his wife to support her as a senator.

Bergstein never paid the money, which became an issue in the couple's divorce case.

Kasser said her divorce has had an effect on her job as a senator in promoting the passage of Jennifer's Law.

"My motives have been impugned and my personal situation is always brought up again," Kasser said.

"When I passed Jennifer's Law, someone in the legislature accused me of [writing the law to make] it effective immediately to help my own case," she noted.

Kasser choked up when asked what she would miss about being a senator.

"I will miss everything about it," she said. "I will miss my colleagues. I will miss the incredible camaraderie and conversations we had ...[about] how to bring our personal experiences and expertise to an endless array of issues that we wanted to address."

"It truly is a life-changing experience, and I enjoyed every minute of it," Kasser said, adding that being a senator gave her "the most professional joy that I've ever experienced."

Kasser, a University of Chicago Law School graduate who previously worked as an attorney for the white-shoe firm Skadden Arps, said she had no idea what she will do professionally after leaving the Senate.

"I have to focus all of my time and attention to this divorce," she said. "I can't make any personal or professional plans until I'm free."

"My immediate plan is to resolve this divorce as quickly as possible."

But her resignation announcement refers broadly to her future intentions.

"Going forward, I will continue to fight against bullying and bigotry in all its forms," Kasser wrote. "Now that I've found my voice, I will never stop using it."

Kasser's fellow Connecticut state Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, told CNBC that she was sorry to see Kasser leave.

"I really liked Alex," said Kushner, the deputy president pro tempore of the Senate, who called Kasser "a hard worker."

"She really added a different perspective and supported a lot of progressive legislation. She was a vocal supporter of the minimum wage increase, and its impact on working women."

"Connecticut, I think, will miss her," Kushner said. "But I'm sure she had good reasons to take this step."

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, in a statement later Tuesday called Kasser "a highly talented member of the Senate Democratic caucus and was respected by all of her colleagues in the General Assembly."

"She was a strong and effective advocate for her constituents and also had a passionate commitment to policies to benefit the entire state," Looney said. "She will be missed at the Capitol, and I wish her the very best in the future both personally and professionally."