By Kim Lyons | Pennsylvania Capital-Star
A group of Republican women lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House announced a package of bills they plan to introduce designed to make changes to sexual harassment rules in state government.
“Sexual harassment is not a political issue, and it is not our intention to make it one,” Rep. Abby Major (R-Armstrong/Westmoreland) said during a Wednesday morning press conference announcing the bills. “Sexual harassment is a workplace issue.”
Such harassment is not usually about sex, but about power, Major added, and leaves victims humiliated and usually stunned into silence. She was one of several women who accused former Democratic state Rep. Mike Zabel of sexual harassment. Zabel resigned in March.
“With more and more women being elected to office in Pennsylvania and more women working here in the Capitol, it is of the utmost importance that we do better,” Major said. “And now with women in charge of both chambers, I think we are finally able to change the culture here in Harrisburg.”
The five bills are designed to reform rules in the wake of the Zabel resignation and following a $295,000 settlement the state paid to a woman who worked for Gov. Josh Shapiro’s former secretary of legislative affairs Mike Vereb. The woman, who the Capital-Star is not naming because of the nature of the allegations, said Vereb made improper, lewd and sexually charged remarks and that the administration’s handling of the situation forced her out of her job.
The settlement payment included about $45,000 from the governor’s office and $250,000 from the taxpayer-funded state Employee Liability Self Insurance Program.
Major’s resolution would amend the House’s ethical conduct rules to include non-verbal acts that could be considered sexual harassment, and expand House rules to prohibit House members from engaging in sexual harassment “while performing House related services or duties or in any House owned or lease property.”
It would also make it easier to appeal an Ethics Committee decision about a complaint if new evidence surfaces after the complaint is dismissed in a preliminary investigation, and provide increased transparency about complaints filed before the Ethics Committee.
Rep. Katie Klunk (R-York) will introduce a bill that would add an exception to the state’s right-to-know law to protect the identities of sexual harassment and sexual assault victims who enter into settlement agreements with a public entity.
In the incident with the woman who accused Vereb, Klunk said she was “stunned” to realize that reporters who submitted right-to-know requests for the settlement agreement under the state’s public records law had access to the accuser’s name. While praising the media for not revealing the woman’s name publicly, Klunk said making the victim’s name accessible “jeopardizes the victim’s safety and their privacy.”
Rep. Charity Grimm Krupa (R-Fayette) will propose a bill that would allow the state to seek reimbursement of the cost of a sexual harassment settlement from the offender.
“As of now, the worst of our public officials feel like they can get away with these disgusting acts because they aren’t footing the bill; the taxpayers are,” Grimm Krupa said. “The cost of their failure to conduct themselves appropriately should not be covered by innocent taxpayers, while these wrongdoers resign and enjoy their taxpayer-funded pensions and salaries.”
A bill from Rep. Donna Scheuren (R-Montgomery), would amend the PennWATCH Act, to include information on each settlement paid to an individual or employee of a commonwealth agency as a result of an action taken by an employee of a commonwealth agency. The PennWATCH website was created about a decade ago to provide transparent monitoring of all state departmental and agency budget expenditures and investments.
And proposed legislation from Rep. Ann Flood (R-Northampton) would codify already existing federal protections into Pennsylvania law, to empower victims and survivors of sexual harassment to speak out without fear of retaliation.
The National Women’s Defense League (NWDL) is a national nonpartisan organization that aims to prevent harassment and protect survivors, with research, advocacy and survivor support. The organization released a report this week on sexual harassment in state government, and found it to be a “pervasive and ongoing” problem, said NWDL co-founder and executive director Emma Davidson Tribbs.
“This isn’t a single-party issue or an anomaly,” Davidson Tribbs said at the press conference on Wednesday. “It is a systemic, under-regulated abuse of power in every state house across the country.”
The report found at least 130 state House lawmakers accused of sexual harassment by 359 individuals over the past decade, numbers Davidson Tribbs said are likely much higher due to under-reporting.
Those most likely to be harassed are staffers, lobbyists, fellow lawmakers and journalists, she added. And, there’s little accountability or reliable recourse for harassing behavior: Nearly 60% of lawmakers attempt to remain in office immediately after an accusation and in 55% of the incidents identified, no official action was taken against the accused official.
Nearly 90% of accused lawmakers are reelected.
“Here in Pennsylvania, we identified five lawmakers publicly accused of sexual harassment since 2013,” Davidson Tribbs said. “With the most recent occurring earlier this year, we’ve seen this pattern play out over and over again without a coordinated effort to change the system.”
Major said she had had a number of Democrats in the House reach out to express support for various pieces of the legislation. “Nothing is overly controversial; I’m hopeful that we can get a number of them on board,” she said.
Nicole Reigelman, spokesperson for House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia), said in a statement to the Capital-Star that Democratic leadership would review the new bills if and when they are introduced.
She noted that House Democrats had initiated major reforms in the House operating rules when McClinton was elected speaker in January, “to correct for deficiencies of the past, including providing a pathway for people, who in the course of their jobs work with representatives, to report incidents of harassment or discrimination. After the rules were passed, the House quickly established the newly empowered House Ethics Committee.”
And, she added, “House Democrats had advocated for these important changes for more than a decade and passed these strengthened rules without support from a single member of the House Republican Caucus. The House Republican Caucus that had failed to act while they were the majority party and had multiple serious incidents during their control of the chamber.
While House Democrats have led on this issue, it is important that we continue to examine our processes and improve them.”
Manuel Bonder, a spokesperson for Shapiro, said in an email to the Capital-Star that the governor supports accountability and transparency measures in every branch of government, adding the administration was encouraged that legislators are including themselves in that accountability.
“The Governor is hopeful this spirit of action will also lead Republican legislative leaders to pass the statute of limitations legislation he has long advocated for, which would finally allow survivors of sexual assault the chance to confront their abusers in court,” Bonder added.
The announcement in the House follows a similar announcement by a bipartisan group of women in the state Senate Tuesday, who plan to introduce two bills aimed at combating sexual harassment in Harrisburg.
A bill to be co-sponsored by Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) and Maria Collett (D-Montgomery), would require state agencies and the Assembly to use a third-party group to investigate all sexual harassment claims submitted by an employee. The second bill, to be co-sponsored by Phillips-Hill and Sen. Tracy Pennycuick (R-Montgomery), would require public posting in the Pennsylvania Bulletin of monetary nondisclosure agreements due to sexual harassment or misconduct claims by an employee.
“As leaders, we need to set the standard to create a safe workplace environment for all in practice and law when it comes to instances of sexual harassment. The recent sexual harassment incidents in the Capitol have presented us with a learning opportunity that we can and should do better,” state Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) said in a news release on Tuesday.
Major said Wednesday she was hopeful the legislative package would advance. “It puts Pennsylvania closer to making our workplaces safer,” she said.
Major then echoed an answer Shapiro gave to a reporter last month, when asked about Ward’s comments on his handling of the Vereb settlement, to “consider the source,” a remark many women in the legislature found to be dismissive.
“I would love to end here by quoting Governor Shapiro and how he has emphasized the need to value our public service workforce by treating them with dignity and respect,” Major said. “But consider the source.”