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HARRISBURG — Gov. Josh Shapiro’s office quietly entered into a settlement agreement to resolve allegations of sexual harassment against one of his most trusted senior aides weeks before the staffer resigned, Spotlight PA has learned.
The settlement contains a clause that bars both sides from discussing the allegations, according to two sources familiar with the agreement. The sources were not authorized to publicly discuss the settlement and requested anonymity.
Use of such clauses has come under intense scrutiny after a wave of high-profile sexual harassment scandals across the U.S. in recent years. They are especially controversial when they involve public money or agencies, with some states having moved to ban them.
Spotlight PA was not able to immediately determine the amount of the settlement, but has made a formal request for that information under the state’s public records law.
The agreement has effectively created a wall of secrecy around the allegations against Mike Vereb, one of Shapiro’s most trusted staffers, and how the administration handled them. Vereb resigned late last month after a copy of a complaint signed by Vereb’s accuser — obtained by Spotlight PA and other news organizations — began circulating in the Capitol.
In the complaint against Vereb, who served as Shapiro’s liaison to the state legislature, a former female subordinate alleged that earlier in the year he made inappropriate, lewd, and sexually suggestive comments. Spotlight PA is not naming the woman who made the allegations.
Neither the governor’s office nor the accuser’s lawyer, Chuck Pascal, has confirmed or denied the existence of a settlement. The governor’s spokesperson, Manuel Bonder, reiterated that the administration takes harassment and discrimination allegations seriously, and has “robust procedures” in place to promptly and thoroughly investigate them.
The sexual harassment allegations have presented the most serious crisis to date for Shapiro, a Democrat who built his reputation as a staunch advocate for survivors when he was state attorney general.
Republicans — led by state Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward of Westmoreland County, the first woman to hold that leadership role — have questioned the timing of Vereb’s resignation, noting that it occurred months after the woman first leveled the harassment accusations.
Ward, whose relationship with Shapiro has chilled in recent months, has also raised the alarm about workplace practices in the governor’s office, and in a news release last month questioned “how taxpayer funds are supporting this issue.” On Tuesday, she signaled that a legislative hearing would be scheduled to more deeply examine the matter.
The Democratic governor has discussed the allegations only in the broadest of terms. At a news conference Oct. 5, he said his administration has “an independent robust process” for investigating allegations of misconduct, “one where any employee should feel comfortable coming forward, and that their voice will be heard.”
He also said that when allegations do arise, “you owe it to a witness, you owe it to a complainant, you owe it to a victim to make sure that you have a confidential process.”
When asked at the news conference about Ward’s concerns, he responded, “Consider the source,” a comment that has further angered Ward and some of her colleagues.
The day before, Shapiro met privately with the state Senate’s eight female Democratic senators. One of them, state Sen. Lisa Boscola of Northampton County, said later that she was “very confident that the administration is handling this as best as they can.”
Details about how the administration responded to the allegations, and any investigations that followed, remain fuzzy.
Two former Shapiro staffers who were identified in the complaint as having witnessed some of the alleged misconduct told Spotlight PA they were interviewed in March by the state’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), which investigates employment-related complaints involving most state agencies.
The two ex-staffers, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, said they told the EEO officer at the time that they disputed the woman’s description of specific events that she had said they witnessed.
“I told them [EEO] that what she [alleged] was out of the realm of possibility,” one of the two ex-staffers said in an interview with Spotlight PA.
Both ex-staffers said they were told that the EEO office was going to retrieve and review their emails and text messages.
It is not known how many other staffers were interviewed, or whether the Equal Employment Opportunity office concluded its investigation or came to any definitive conclusions.
The complaint against Vereb obtained by Spotlight PA and other news organizations was addressed to Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission, which is separate from the EEO office. The document is signed and dated May 26, but does not have a stamp or other markings that confirm it was filed or accepted by the commission.
In a personal statement attached to the complaint, the accuser alleged Vereb’s inappropriate behavior began within weeks of her starting work in January for Shapiro’s fledgling administration.
She alleged specific instances — in some cases, witnessed by others in the governor’s office — in which Vereb acted or spoke inappropriately. She also alleged Vereb discussed having a sexual relationship with her.
The accuser wrote that she told Vereb at one point during her brief employment with the governor’s office that she was concerned about his image, as there were rumors and questions circulating about his personal life. She said Vereb told her he had been vetted by the governor “on this topic,” and that he had promised it would not be an issue for the office.
Within hours, she said, the retaliation began. She said she ended up resigning her job in March, just weeks after joining the administration.
It is not known whether the Human Relations Commission launched a formal inquiry into the complaint. Such personnel-related investigations and information about them are generally not public under the law.
But the use of confidentiality or similar clauses to resolve such allegations, especially if they involve tax dollars, has come under the microscope as part of the #MeToo movement.
Supporters of the clauses argue the promise of confidentiality is necessary not just to protect reputations, but to encourage victims — and witnesses — to come forward without fear of reprisal. But critics of the practice argue it perpetuates a harmful culture of secrecy, and can prevent taxpayers from knowing how their money is being used.
In Pennsylvania, taxpayer-underwritten settlements have been common over the years.
Between 2010 and 2019, state officials paid at least $3.2 million in taxpayer funds to resolve more than two dozen sexual harassment complaints against government and public employees.
And in 2015, Pennsylvania House Democrats spent nearly $250,000 in taxpayer money to secretly settle a sexual harassment complaint against one of the chamber’s longtime lawmakers. The settlement included a nondisclosure agreement.
Legislation was introduced in 2017 to bar nondisclosure agreements when settling civil claims of sexual assault and harassment, but the bill did not ultimately advance.
Other states have barred or severely restricted the use of such clauses in settlement agreements in recent years. Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in 2019 signed into law legislation that renders nondisclosure provisions unenforceable in settlement agreements in cases that involve workplace harassment or discrimination-related claims.
A year earlier, in 2018, Kansas’ legislature passed budget legislation with provisions prohibiting the use of taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment claims and barring state agencies from using public dollars to pursue nondisclosure agreements when settling claims.
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