HARRISBURG – Female lawmakers say that the state Capitol needed to confront a culture of predatory sexual harassment that most often targeted legislative staffers and interns.
“I’m less worried about female lawmakers than I am about the staff,” said state Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks County. “I know they’ve felt very vulnerable. This was a place where they knew, you had to be careful,” Schwank said.
State Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin County, said she can already sense how men are acting differently at the Capitol now that the #Metoo movement has brought attention to the issue.
“The effects of the shock wave are palpable,” she said. “Men are on their toes. I don’t mind that, I think there needs to be a culture change.”
Kim said that legislative staff have most often had to deal with harassing behavior that can be intended to flirtatious, but in reality ends up being demeaning.
While sexual harassment can happen in any workplace, when the perpetrator is an elected official it can be more difficult to quickly find a satisfactory resolution, said state Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware County.
“Elected officials can’t be fired,” she said. As a result, employees who report sexual harassment have often been faced with situations where they don’t see their perpetrator face any meaningful punishment for it, Davidson said.
State Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky, D-Delaware County, has introduced legislation that would create a free-standing independent office of compliance to investigate allegations of sexual harassment made against lawmakers.
Davidson said she hopes to address this problem through legislation that would direct complaints about sexual harassment to the state Ethics Commission.
The Ethics Commission can fine the offender up to $1,000 and its findings would be public. If the ethics commission makes a determination that a lawmaker has sexually harassed a worker, the Legislature could vote to refuse to allow the member to be seated in the General Assembly, Davidson said.
The need for these tougher penalties are clear from the allegations made against several current and former lawmakers, she said.
Under the existing practices, “voters don’t know, their colleagues don’t know” when there have been allegations of sexual harassment made against lawmakers, Davidson said.
The issue re-emerged at the Capitol this week after the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Caucus, a Capitol-based weekly newspaper, both reported that two women had filed a complaint with the Legislature alleging that state Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-Delaware County, had engaged in conduct that was abusive and allegedly included a sexual assault.
The allegations date from 2012 to 2014 but the women lodged their complaint last month. Miccarelli has denied the allegations.
In a statement distributed by House Majority Leader Dave Reed’s office, House Republican leaders said the "allegations are alarming, and if true, cannot and will not be tolerated in our Caucus, in the House, or anywhere.”
Gov. Tom Wolf called for Micarelli to resign.
House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny County, said the allegations demonstrated that "it is plainly time for the General Assembly to take swift and meaningful action to address the problems of workplace violence and discrimination, which clearly exist.”
He’s not the first to face allegations of inappropriate conduct.
The state House Democrats disclosed in December that they’d paid out $514,300 to settle sexual harassment allegations against one current, state Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, and one former state lawmaker, Jewell Williams.
In addition, state Sen. Daylin Leach was accused of inappropriately touching and making inappropriate comments to aides. Leach had been running for Congress, but last week announced he was abandoning that campaign.
“I was glad” to see that Leach had dropped his bid for Congress, Davidson said.
Schwank said that the #Metoo movement has provided a tipping point so that female employees feel more empowered to share allegations of sexual harassment.
“It’s a whole new ball game,” she said.
The allegations against lawmakers were bad enough, she said. But it was also alarming to see news reports about allegations of sexual harassment by state employees in a number of agencies.
“That’s not the kind of work environment we want,” she said.
Schwank said that at the Capitol, there have already been steps taken to improve the environment, including new mandatory training focused on what constitutes sexual harassment.
Schwank has introduced legislation that would bar non-disclosure agreements statewide, including those in which neither party is a public employee or elected official.
Based on concerns raised by advocates for victims, she said the legislation will be modified so that the victims can choose to have settlement agreements that are private.
Davidson said her proposal to direct inquiries against elected officials wouldn’t just affect the way business happens at the Capitol but in government offices across the state.
“Can you imagine working in one of these small boroughs. Where does an employee go if she’s being harassed by the mayor?” she asked.
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Daily Item and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.