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Pa. legislature paid $280K to settle harassment, other claims while requiring secrecy in many cases

by Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA |

The dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.
Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania legislature has quietly paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past five years to settle sexual harassment and other claims against lawmakers and staffers, Spotlight PA has learned through open records requests.

Many of the settlements include controversial secrecy clauses and other provisions that prevent public disclosure of the agreement.

Spotlight PA requested the information after female Republican legislators harshly criticized Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s office for agreeing to pay $295,000 to resolve a sexual harassment claim against a top advisor. The settlement, which only became public after several media outlets filed public records requests for it, included a nondisclosure agreement.

In all, the state House and Senate paid out $279,361 between 2017 and September of this year to settle 11 disputes, which ranged from a disagreement over office lease payments to racial discrimination and sexual harassment complaints. Nearly all settlements named either individual caucuses or chambers within the legislature, while six also singled out current or former lawmakers.

Of the 11 settlements, seven included strict confidentiality promises or provisions preventing the parties involved from speaking negatively about each other.

One settlement, resolving a sexual harassment claim leveled by a female former top state Senate security officer against her then-boss, included additional covenants preventing her from divulging personnel and other information she may have obtained over the course of her employment.

State Rep. Abby Major (R., Armstrong), one of the legislature’s most outspoken advocates for strengthening workplace protection policies and transparency around the process, said she was not surprised that the General Assembly harbored a list of little-known settlements.

“Our argument has never been that just the administration is bad,” said Major, one of several people who earlier this year accused a former lawmaker of sexually harassing her. “We are saying the whole process sucks. And this is the way it's been done, unless someone steps up and tries to make the change. I have no problem calling out our own.”

Major is among a group of female lawmakers from both chambers who intend to introduce a package of bills aimed at changing how harassment cases are dealt with in state government.

Major, for instance, is pushing to expand the definition of sexual harassment in the state House’s ethics rules to include nonverbal acts. She also wants to increase transparency surrounding the number of harassment complaints that land before the chamber’s Ethics Committee, which typically operates under a veil of secrecy.

The committee reviews complaints against state House members and employees alleging unethical conduct under the chamber’s rules and code of ethics. The panel typically meets in private, and its work is not publicized.

Separately, state Rep. Charity Grimm Krupa (R., Fayette) is pushing a bill that would allow government agencies to seek reimbursement from an offender if there is a settlement payout — and make those reimbursement requests public.

Currently, settlement costs are most often shouldered by the government agency where the offender is employed, or covered through the state-funded Employee Liability Self-Insurance Program (ELSIP).

Unless the public specifically requests them, settlement records largely fall under the radar.

Oftentimes, the records do not provide details about the underlying dispute, requiring the public to search court documents and other publicly available information to understand the reason for the settlement.

Complete confidentiality

Spotlight PA requested settlement records for actual and threatened litigation involving the two chambers dating back to 2017.

The state House turned over records for 10 settlement payments totaling just under $195,000. They range from $4,000 to settle a dispute over lease payments for the district office of a former top Democrat to more than $40,000 to settle allegations of unlawful discrimination and retaliation.

The latter involved Markus Woodring, a former computer technician who alleged he was wrongly fired in 2018 by Republicans after he took to social media to defend a lawmaker who had been accused of physically or sexually abusing two women. Records show state House Republicans tapped a special account controlled by leaders to settle the case in April 2021 for $42,000.

The deal contains a confidentiality clause in which Woodring agrees to keep the terms “completely confidential,” and to not disclose “any information … to anyone.” Violating the clause would result in a $10,000 fine, according to the agreement.

Woodring’s settlement also included a nondisparagement clause covering both him and the Republican caucus.

State House Republicans also paid $39,500 to a former photographer who had sued them for alleged discrimination, unlawful termination, and retaliation in part due to his Islamic faith. The settlement agreement, signed in April of last year, contains confidentiality and nondisparagement clauses — as well as fines — that are similar to those in Woodring’s settlement.

Like in Woodring’s case, state House Republicans tapped their special leadership account for the payout.

A graphic that shows parts of settlements agreed to by the Pennsylvania legislature.
Sarah Anne Hughes / Spotlight PA

State House Democrats also settled multiple disputes with employees.

In January of this year, the caucus agreed to pay $27,361 to resolve a case that appears to involve alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The settlement includes provisions requiring the caucus to review its policies for requests for reasonable accommodations to comply with the act; review its policies for employee requests for telework; and provide training to human resources employees who handle ADA and other anti-discrimination matters.

The agreement includes confidentiality and nondisparagement clauses. It also contains an unusual provision stating that if the settlement were turned over as part of a public records request, the caucus would redact the name of the employee who made the allegations. As a result, the employee’s name is blacked out in the documents the state House provided to Spotlight PA.

Separately, state House Democrats in late 2017 agreed to pay $30,000 in “emotional distress damages” to a onetime employee of state Rep. Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia, who became the chamber’s speaker this year. The employee filed a whistleblower suit against the Democrat and the state House, alleging that he was fired after raising concerns about the propriety of an event McClinton was organizing involving a church with which she was involved.

McClinton declined to comment.

The settlement contains a confidentiality clause as well as a nondisparagement clause that, among other things, required the former employee’s attorney to scrub her firm’s website and social media of any references to the case.

In response to Spotlight PA’s public records request, the state Senate provided just one document.

That document reflects an agreement, signed in June 2021, settling a high-stakes lawsuit filed by a former top security guard for the chamber. The guard, Sue Salov, was one of two women who accused the chamber’s onetime security chief, Justin Ferrante, of sexual harassment. Ferrante resigned his position amid an internal investigation into the allegations.

The dispute was rancorous. After Salov sued the state Senate, then-President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) quietly authorized the chamber to pay Ferrante’s legal bills. That controversial arrangement raised questions about why leaders defended a former employee whose alleged misconduct did not involve his official duties.

In Salov’s settlement, entitled “Separation Agreement and General Release,” the state Senate agreed to pay $85,000 as a “separation payment.” It also required her to remain silent about confidential information she may have come across during her employment. As part of their duties, state Senate security officers have knowledge of certain personnel issues involving senators and their employees, and also have access to senators’ offices after business hours.

The chamber’s current president pro tempore, Republican Kim Ward of Westmoreland County, declined to comment on the settlement, including whether it should have been made public.

Ward has been at the forefront of criticism aimed at Shapiro’s handling of the sexual harassment allegations against his former high-profile advisor Mike Vereb. Among other things, she has questioned why Vereb was able to remain in his job for months after he was accused by a female subordinate of making inappropriate remarks and sexual advances.

In mid-November, Ward told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that when taxpayer dollars are “being used behind closed doors, that’s not OK.”

Ward and a group of other female state senators intend to introduce legislation that would require third parties to investigate sexual harassment claims. Another measure, championed by GOP state Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill (York) and Tracy Pennycuick (Berks), would require the legislature and other state agencies to report the number of settlements resolving sexual harassment allegations. That information would be publicized in the PA Bulletin, the state’s weekly journal, and would include the agency making the payout and the amount of the settlement — not the names of the parties involved or any of the underlying documents.

For his part, Shapiro signaled at the press club luncheon in Harrisburg earlier this month that he welcomes bills that strengthen workplace protections. But he also took the chance to slap back at the legislature.

“I think it's also very encouraging that lawmakers are now looking to try and adopt standards across the board,” he said, “particularly in the legislature — a place that has had very little standards and virtually no transparency over many, many years.”

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