Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds power to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania. Sign up for our free newsletters.
HARRISBURG — Gov. Josh Shapiro’s office agreed to pay $295,000 to quietly settle a sexual harassment complaint against one of his most trusted advisors, according to records obtained by Spotlight PA through a public records request.
The settlement will be paid using public dollars. It was signed on Sept. 5, more than three weeks before the advisor, Mike Vereb, abruptly resigned from his job as Shapiro’s liaison to the state legislature, prompting Republicans to question the governor’s handling of the matter.
The agreement included a controversial confidentiality clause that bars both sides from discussing the allegations against Vereb. Spotlight PA is not naming the woman who brought the complaint, in which she alleges Vereb made inappropriate, crude, and sexually suggestive comments during her brief stint working for him earlier this year.
Such clauses have been widely criticized in the wake of the #MeToo movement, particularly when they are included in settlements by government agencies. Opponents believe they create harmful cultures of silence that discourage survivors from reporting misconduct.
Vereb has declined to discuss the allegations, which became public shortly after he resigned late last month.
Shapiro spokesperson Manuel Bonder said in a statement Friday that because of the terms of the agreement, he could not specifically address the allegations. In the settlement, however, the governor’s office does not admit guilt and specifically denies wrongdoing and liability for the woman’s allegations.
Bonder said complaints like this are often settled because litigation is expensive and can take years to resolve.
“Complainants and defendants often settle litigation for reasons not related to the validity of the underlying facts and claims,” Bonder said.
Chuck Pascal, who represents the woman who filed the complaint, added: “Generally speaking, settlements occur after both parties determine the value of a case — and given the uncertainties of litigation — come to a settlement that is somewhere between those two numbers.”
According to administration officials, $250,000 of the $295,000 settlement will be covered by the state’s Employee Liability Self-Insurance Program, which has been widely used in the past to cover payments resolving harassment and discrimination claims. The remaining $45,000 will be covered by Shapiro’s office.
Nearly $100,000 of the settlement will go to two lawyers who represented the woman who brought the misconduct complaint. The woman worked for Shapiro’s office for just over a month before resigning her position.
The settlement also includes a provision stating that the governor’s office will provide sexual harassment training to all the members of its policy and legislative affairs staff.
Taxpayer-funded settlements aren’t new to Pennsylvania.
State officials paid at least $3.2 million in taxpayer funds between 2010 and 2019 to resolve more than two dozen sexual harassment complaints against government and public employees. In one such agreement, state House Democrats paid $250,000 in 2019 to settle a sexual harassment complaint against a longtime state representative. As in the settlement concerning Vereb, it contained a nondisclosure agreement.
Vereb and Shapiro have been political allies for decades, dating back to their overlapping tenures in the state House. Both represented districts in Montgomery County — Shapiro as a Democrat and Vereb as a Republican.
When Shapiro was elected attorney general in 2016, Vereb was the only person not involved in Democratic politics or Shapiro’s campaign to be appointed to his staff. And when Shapiro assembled his gubernatorial staff, Vereb was again one of the few Republicans tapped for a top job.
In a complaint and statement filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission this May, the woman alleged that the harassment began shortly after she began working for Shapiro’s fledgling administration in late January of this year. She described specific instances of misconduct, some of which she claimed were witnessed by others in the administration.
She wrote that during one meeting with Vereb, she told him she was concerned about his image, because rumors were circulating in the Capitol about his personal life. Shortly after, she alleged, she was surprised to receive an invite to a meeting with human resources, and that administration officials began raising concerns about her performance on the job. She said she resigned shortly after.
“I am not well after all of this,” she wrote in her personal statement. “My health insurance was cut off immediately. I have no access to mental healthcare. My doctor thinks I may have PTSD, and I have had difficulty sleeping. I was sexually harassed and it is magnified by someone trying to cover it up.”
In interviews, two former administration employees who the woman said witnessed Vereb’s misconduct disputed descriptions of some of the allegations contained in her complaint. The two ex-staffers requested anonymity because they are not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
Both said they were interviewed this past March by an investigator with the administration’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and relayed their concerns about the woman’s description of events.
It is not known how many other administration employees were interviewed, or whether the office concluded its investigation or came to a conclusion on the woman’s allegations.
The settlement appears to have been negotiated through the Human Relations Commission’s mediation program. Among other provisions, it contains a mutual nondisparagement clause.
As part of the deal, the woman also agreed to forgo future employment in Shapiro’s office and executive agencies under his jurisdiction. The provision only applies to Shapiro’s gubernatorial tenure.
BEFORE YOU GO… If you learned something from this article, pay it forward and contribute to Spotlight PA at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.