Lobbyist’s harassment claim shines new light on efforts to hold Pa. lawmakers accountable

A union lobbyist’s allegation of sexual harassment by a sitting member of the Pennsylvania House has again highlighted the need for comprehensive sexual harassment policies in the General Assembly, lawmakers advocating such rules say.

Andi Perez, a lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union 32BJ, said last month that she was touched inappropriately by a male lawmaker while she was working and discussing legislation over drinks.

The state representative “decided to caress my leg while I was wearing a skirt all the while telling me he was impressed by my passion and knowledge of the issues we were discussing,” Perez said. “I moved away from him hoping he would stop — he did not.”

Perez first spoke publicly about the incident at a listening session Jan. 27 in Philadelphia, where she said that when she attempted to make a report to the state House Ethics Committee she was told that only House employees could file complaints against lawmakers. Perez did not identify the lawmaker.

The forum with House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, and six other House lawmakers was intended to gather input from the public on the rules that will govern the chamber this session. 

Perez called on lawmakers to adopt ethics rules that protect others who do business in the Capitol or with lawmakers outside state offices.

In a statement following her testimony, she said she was proud to share her experience with the hope that it will guide the rulemaking process.

“I look forward to seeing these changes enacted at the start of the new session. No one should face harassment at work, but if they do, the perpetrator should be held accountable,” Perez said.

Democratic lawmakers who are pushing for broader sexual harassment protection in the General Assembly said their proposals are being discussed in their caucuses, but it’s unclear what form they will ultimately take and whether their colleagues on both sides of the House and Senate will agree to adopt them.

Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, and Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, proposed an ethics rules change to provide protection for “all individuals working within the state Capitol, including outside contractors, lobbyists, and visitors.”

The proposal, which Muth and Williams put up for consideration on swearing-in day, was not adopted by the Republican-controlled Senate. Muth and Williams cast the only votes against the version of the ethics rules the Senate did adopt on Jan. 3.

Their proposal is now being discussed within the Senate Democratic Caucus with “back and forth” over whether Muth’s and Williams’ version of the rules will be adopted with a requirement to report misconduct within one year or five years of an incident, Muth said. 

State Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, introduced legislation in 2016 focused on House employees after learning of harassment staffers had suffered from male lawmakers. 

The bill would have clearly defined harassment and established a non-partisan, bicameral Office of Compliance. It would also require elected officials to reimburse taxpayers for settlements involving sexual harassment claims.

According to a 2019 Joint State Government Commission survey of legislative, judicial, executive and independent state agencies, such claims had cost taxpayers $1.9 million.

The bill died in committee after Krueger introduced and reintroduced it in two sessions. Krueger chose not to reintroduce it last session. She said she now believes adopting the harassment rules as part of the House’s operating rules is the fastest way to accomplish reform.

“I think anybody who works in the Capitol deserves protection. We need to enact real protection, not just for staffers — for interns, lobbyists, reporters and anyone else who comes in contact with the legislature,” Krueger said.

Krueger noted that other bills on sexual harassment have been introduced by Democratic lawmakers but they have been blocked by Republican leaders, who controlled the House for the last six sessions. 

Spokespeople for Rozzi and House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, did not respond to requests for comment. 

A spokesperson for the House Democratic Caucus provided a statement acknowledging incidents of harassment and discrimination in the Legislature in the past, and saying that without appropriate measures in place, the opportunities for recourse are limited if similar incidents occur.

We are continuing to work on developing a broader set of rules to ensure a fair process for claims of harassment and discrimination – for all protected classes – to be included in the rules adopted for this legislative session,” the statement reads.

Shea Rhodes, director of the Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, at Villanova University, said that any reform the General Assembly undertakes must be visible to the public, accessible to the people it intends to protect, and structured to ensure there is a clear process for filing a complaint, conducting an investigation and adjudicating claims.

In a 2019 study of existing General Assembly sexual misconduct policies, Rhodes and a team of law students found they were cumbersome, obscure, insufficient and impractical. The team recommended a number of changes that were adopted by a grand jury investigating assault allegations against a house member.

Rhodes said a number of sexual harassment allegations against state lawmakers in the last decade show that without a clear procedure for handling complaints, the outcomes are inconsistent and often provide little assurance that the misconduct will stop.

In 2018, two women accused then-state Rep. Nick Miccarelli of stalking, threatening, intimidating and sexually assaulting them and called on him to resign. Miccarelli, R-Delaware, denied wrongdoing but a House investigation found the complaints credible and forwarded them to the Dauphin County district attorney.

Miccarelli never faced sanctions or attempts to remove him from office and instead chose not to seek reelection. He remains eligible for retirement benefits and a pension.

A woman accused Rep. Brian Ellis in 2019 of drugging her at a Harrisburg bar and sexually assaulting her after she had rebuffed his sexual advances. Ellis, R-Butler, resigned after the woman went to reporters with her allegation and a Dauphin County grand jury investigated but did not recommend charges.

House Democrats in 2015 paid $248,000 to settle a sexual harassment complaint against Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, D-Berks, by a former staffer. 

State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, faced a chorus of calls for his resignation in 2019 after a law firm hired by Senate Democrats to investigate his behavior found “immature and unprofessional” behaviors that could lead to a hostile work environment. 

The firm declined to make a judgment on a sexual assault allegation from a woman who claimed Leach coerced her into oral sex when she was a teenager and Leach was an attorney representing her mother.

Leach said the investigation absolved him of false charges and found he did not violate Senate policy. He remained in office until he was defeated in a reelection bid in 2020.

Muth, who is a rape survivor, was among those calling for his resignation during her 2018 campaign in a neighboring Senate district. She said Leach made her life “a living hell” through the campaign and even after she took office made “weird, inappropriate” comments and jokes.

“That’s my work experience. It was just like you’re stuck in this place with this person and a lot of people didn’t think it was an issue,” Muth said. “Clearly we have a cultural issue, right?”

Rhodes, a former prosecutor, said the Legislature needs an independent entity charged with ensuring complaints are investigated and lawmakers are held accountable, similar to the state Attorney Disciplinary Board and Judicial Conduct Board that handle misconduct claims against lawyers and judges.

If a lawyer is accused of sexual misconduct, they might find another job, but the accuser can still pursue a claim to hold the lawyer professionally accountable. Rhodes said the same should be true for lawmakers who commit misconduct in office.

“Why should we have to wait until another election cycle to ferret out behavior as egregious as sexual violence?” Rhodes said.

Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Peter Hall

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