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Top Democrats knew about sexual harassment allegation against Pa. lawmaker in 2019

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA |

Pennsylvania Democrat Mike Zabel said he will resign March 16.
House Democratic Caucus

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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania House Democrats for the first time have acknowledged that the caucus knew about a sexual harassment allegation against state Rep. Mike Zabel (D., Delaware) in 2019, several years before similar claims became public, leading the lawmaker to announce his resignation.

Two sources told Spotlight PA that lawmakers including then-state House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny) were approached at the time by a lobbyist who said Zabel inappropriately caressed her.

The lobbyist, Andi Perez, recently told her story publicly for the first time. Three other people, including two sitting GOP lawmakers, have also come forward, leading Zabel to announce he will resign.

A spokesperson for state House Democrats at first declined to answer questions about what leadership knew in 2019. Then, on Friday, a spokesperson said “the caucus was informed of an incident regarding Rep. Zabel” that year.

“He was immediately directed by [Dermody] to receive treatment through the State Employee Assistance Program (SEAP),” the spokesperson said. SEAP “offers services related to substance abuse, mental health issues, family issues, financial issues, legal services, and mediation,” according to its website.

“He was also required to complete one on one harassment, discrimination and retaliation training in person with outside legal counsel, as well as Caucus training on power dynamics, which he completed,” the spokesperson said.

Zabel has declined to comment on the allegations. In a letter to Democratic leadership earlier this month, he said he was already receiving treatment for an unnamed illness. He has declined to answer questions about the nature of his illness or treatment.

On March 1, shortly after Perez named Zabel for the first time, state House Democratic leaders including new Speaker Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) said in a statement they were “concerned by the allegations we learned today.”

They did not call for Zabel to resign, as some rank-and-file Democrats and Republican leaders had.

After saying he would not step down, Zabel announced this week he would resign shortly after state Rep. Abby Major (R., Armstrong) said Zabel put his arm around her, propositioned her, and followed her to her car at a social event in November 2022.

In the statement, the spokesperson for state House Democrats said, “more recently, prior to the personal accounts that were released last week, there have been rumors circulating regarding Rep. Zabel’s behavior.”

“Due to these persistent rumors, and based upon the prior corrective actions put in place, the concerns shared were directly addressed with Rep. Zabel,” the spokesperson continued. “Again, Leadership discussed with Rep. Zabel that any such behavior is unacceptable and that if he needed assistance, there is assistance available to him.”

In addition to Dermody, two sources told Spotlight PA that state Rep. Leanne Krueger (D., Delaware) was informed about the alleged incident involving Perez shortly after it occurred. Krueger is the chair of the Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee, which offers backing and financial support to candidates.

Krueger declined to comment when reached by Spotlight PA. Dermody, who lost a reelection bid in 2020, did not respond to a request for comment.

Since fall 2017, as high-profile allegations of sexual harassment and assault forced a societal reckoning, Harrisburg has been rocked by a number of scandals but with few institutional reforms to show for it.

In 2018, two women, including a fellow state representative, accused then-state Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R., Delaware) of sexually and physically assaulting them. Miccarrelli denied the allegations.

An investigation by the state House found that the allegations were credible, according to excerpts released by one of the women’s attorneys. However, chamber rules at the time did not mention sexual misconduct, and Republican leaders said they had no grounds to punish him.

Two sources told Spotlight PA that lawmakers including then-state House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny) were approached at the time by a lobbyist who said Zabel inappropriately caressed her.
Commonwealth Media Services
Two sources told Spotlight PA that lawmakers including then-state House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny) were approached at the time by a lobbyist who said Zabel inappropriately caressed her.

Republican leadership and several Democrats called for him to resign, but Miccarrelli chose to serve out his term.

Amid this, Krueger became a leading voice on the issue, advocating for state Rep. Tarah Toohil (R., Luzerne), the lawmaker who accused Miccarelli of misconduct.

She and Toohil introduced a bipartisan bill in 2018 to create an independent Office of Compliance to receive, investigate, and resolve sexual harassment complaints within the state legislature.

The bill was referred to a committee controlled by state Rep. Rob Kauffman (R., Franklin). In lieu of voting on any policy changes, Kauffman’s panel advanced a resolution to study sexual harassment in state government — a decision that some Democrats decried as an effort to stall real reform.

The study was released a year later and found 24 cases of sexual harassment, general harassment, or a “hostile work environment” in the state House between 2013 and 2018. Nine of those instances had no discipline attached; the rest resulted in counseling, suspension, termination, or some other disciplinary action.

The state House added a rule specifically barring sexual harassment by lawmakers in January 2019, but it only allowed fellow lawmakers and chamber employees to bring a complaint to the ethics committee.

“The problem is evident: Our elected legislators are always working for the people of the commonwealth during their terms in office,” Shea Rhodes, a Villanova University law professor who specializes in sexual violence, wrote in a 2019 report. “As such, it makes little sense to sharply delineate their sexual misconduct ‘in the workplace’ from their sexual misconduct elsewhere.”

In 2022, Republican lawmakers introduced legislation, privately backed by Perez, to expand the rules to allow more people to bring complaints against legislators, but it was not adopted. Both major parties blamed the other for the lack of action.

Democratic leaders have said that chamber rules adopted earlier this year will cover lobbyists like Perez. But the policy has yet to be tested and some Republicans have expressed doubt that it will be as expansive and effective as promised.

The new rules state that no lawmaker “shall engage in discrimination or harassment, including sexual harassment” against another member or “any individual while performing services or duties of the House; in or on House designated offices, property or facilities; or at a House-sponsored meeting or event.”

Democrats said the rules are written to cover any individual harassed by a lawmaker in the three scenarios laid out. Republicans have argued that, because of how the rule is written, lawmakers are only prevented from harassing any individual if they are doing state House business at official events or in the Capitol.

Rhodes reviewed the language and told Spotlight PA she thinks most individuals harassed by lawmakers will be able to file complaints under the new rules.

“I think these rules — if we’re not going to quibble over semicolons and ors — could in fact, if implemented appropriately, provide the due process that has been lacking to date,” Rhodes said.

On March 1, state House Democratic spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said the ethics committee would be established the following day. While leadership has assigned members to the eight-person committee, evenly split between both major parties, it has not been formally organized.

The committee will officially form on March 16 — the same day Zabel said he will resign. Reigelman said that the committee is already accepting complaints, and that Democrats plan to create a website showing the committee’s “process for collecting and investigating reports of discrimination and harassment.”

Major said that a member of the committee, who she declined to identify, told her the panel is not yet accepting complaints.

Earlier this month, Perez said she was undecided on filing a complaint under the new rules, but that she supported them as written. Major was also unsure what she’d do next, but expressed concern that individuals harassed outside the Capitol would still face difficulty bringing their cases to the committee.

“If this had been actually handled when [Perez] first reported it, then we wouldn’t have had these incidents,” she told Spotlight PA. “It wouldn’t be an ongoing problem four years later.”

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