PPA harassment victim tells all

Sue Cornell, the senior director of strategic planning and administration at the Philadelphia Parking Authority, talks about the sexual harassment by ex-boss Vince Fenerty.

REMEMBER HOW PPA board member Al Taubenberger referred to Vince Fenerty's sexual harassment of a PPA employee as "a high school puppy love situation"?

Well, that employee begs to differ. Her name is Sue Cornell, she's the senior director of strategic planning and administration at the Philadelphia Parking Authority, and she spent Friday morning telling me her story.

Cornell hadn't planned to go public. She was not named by Inquirer columnist Mike Newall, who broke the news last week of Fenerty's being disciplined in July 2015 for sexually harassing her. And PPA board members did not identify her when they offered comments in Newall's column and subsequent news stories.

But Cornell has been outraged by what she says has been a disgusting response from the PPA board about her experience as the object of Fenerty's icky obsession. And she's appalled that Fenerty - who resigned Wednesday, the day before the board was to fire him - was booted only when Newall reported that Cornell was actually the second PPA female worker to complain to the board about Fenerty's inappropriate behavior.

In that 2006 case, the PPA was prepared to offer the woman a $150,000 settlement, which she turned down. After Newall asked questions about it, two board members at first said the board was never told of the woman's complaint. Later, the PPA said board members actually had been told, but had forgotten.

Cornell went wild with rage.

"I don't buy that excuse for a second," says Cornell, 45, a former Republican state rep who served the 152nd District from 2004 to 2007. "How do you forget something like that?"

I have my own questions for PPA board chair Joe Ashdale, whose daughters and a niece also work at the PPA:

If one of them had been subjected to sexual harassment and been offered a $150,000 settlement, is that something he'd soon forget?

But Ashdale declined to comment for this column.

So I didn't get to ask him about the four-page letter of complaint Cornell submitted to the PPA's human resources department in June 2015. It describes increasingly creepy behavior by Fenerty, who told Cornell - in person, in misspelled texts, in front of coworkers - that "you are perfect for me."

"Your a beautiful lady inside and out," went one of the texts.

"I can not deny my feelings. You're the best," went another. "I have never felt this way about anyone ... Please give me a chance a small chance. I lov you."

"You are as intelligent as you are beautiful," gushed another.

"I know that you are trying to suppress your love for me," he insisted in another. "But you haven't spoke to me in a day and a half I feel hurt, I feel lonely, and I feel neglected. Did I offend you?"

That's not "a high school puppy love situation." It's entitled abuse of authority by a man who puts his own wants and desires ahead of respect for a woman who just wants to do her damn job. I feel awful that Cornell was subjected to it.

"Vince was just getting worse and worse with me," says Cornell. "I'd try to be delicate and brush him off, because he was my boss and I really liked my job. I didn't want to have to leave."

But Fenerty, she says, kept putting her in situations where she would be alone with him, all under the guise of work, and it kept her from doing her own job.

He told Cornell that the records for the Republican City Committee (Fenerty is a Republican ward leader) were in bad shape and that he needed her help, after hours, to straighten them out.

He forced Cornell to accompany him on an overnight trip to Harrisburg to discuss taxi-related issues with Uber (the PPA oversees taxi operations in Philadelphia), even though her job has nothing to do with taxis.

That evening, she says, as they were walking to their separate hotel rooms, Fenerty grabbed her by the shoulders, puckered up and tried to kiss her. Cornell told him to knock it off, but he wouldn't let go.

"Just the cheek then?" he begged. Cornell offered a cheek and he let her go. She went to her room, grossed out.

It wasn't the first time he used a business trip to try to deepen his relationship with her, she says.

In 2014, at a National Parking Association conference in Dallas, he would not stop professing his love for her, Cornell says, insisting that only he could take care of her in the ways she deserved. When they returned to Philly, she avoided him as much as you can avoid a boss whose office is next door to your own.

"Finally, I told him we had to talk," says Cornell. "He was worried. He said, 'Are you quitting?' I said, 'No, but if you don't stop, I will.' He said he valued me as an employee. I said, 'If you did, you'd stop saying those things to me.' "

For a while, she said, he behaved. That was a cycle they had. He'd push, she'd deflect; he'd push harder, she'd give him the silent treatment - and only then would he back off.

"I had to watch my behavior all the time," says Cornell, a friendly woman who laughs easily. "If I let down my guard and said, 'Good morning,' that was all the invitation he needed. And everything fell apart again."

Fenerty bought her jewelry - a necklace one Christmas, a necklace-and-bracelet set the next. He sent her flowers at home. At meetings, if he couldn't sit next to her, he'd wink at her from across the room or stare at her for uncomfortably long periods of time.

At one nonwork event, Cornell says, Fenerty was frantic when he saw her talking to a man who then asked for her number. Fenerty later phoned to warn her that the guy was a "man slut" who only wanted to have sex with her.

"He said he was trying to protect me," says Cornell, who is single. "He was always intruding in my private life. He would hug me, rub my shoulders and touch my leg. I couldn't stand it."

She was mortified to hear that some PPA employees, seeing Fenerty's public displays of unwanted affection, assumed she was in a sexual relationship with him and believed that was how she got her job. In front of others, Fenerty would say, "Susie knows what I like to eat," or, "Sue and I drink pinot grigio, that's what we like."

Others intervened on her behalf with Fenerty, to no avail.

State Rep. John Taylor, who has known Fenerty for 40 years, told me that he confronted Fenerty about a year before Cornell filed her complaint. It was apparent to many people, he told me, that Fenerty had a thing for her.

"I told him, 'Look, as your friend and as a lawyer, I have to tell you, this is a disaster,' " says Taylor. "He was bringing Sue to meetings she didn't need to be at. He was taking her on overnight trips, which didn't look right. He was clearly putting her in uncomfortable situations. I told him, 'Vince, this isn't going to end well.' "

And Rick Dickson, who is now codirecting the PPA until Fenerty's replacement can be found, also read Fenerty the riot act. He told Cornell that Fenerty seemed to "get it."

But the very next day, she learned that Fenerty had gone into her office after hours, taken the keys to her PPA-issued car, and driven it to his home. He told Cornell he was worried about its brakes and advised her to get them checked.

"I couldn't believe that he'd do that - right after Rick talked to him," says Cornell.

The next day, she filed her complaint. An eight-day investigation yielded a confession from Fenerty that he'd been a creep. In fact, says Cornell, "the investigator said that 'Vince has very, very strong feelings for you and is unhealthily in love with you.' "

Cornell was not allowed to know the disciplinary actions the board took against Fenerty. But she was told she would not have to report to him at all. Instead, Dickson would become her boss.

Things calmed down for a few months, she says. But Fenerty eventually started giving her assignments, and she could sense that he was becoming comfortable around her again. It made her nervous.

It wasn't until Newall reported on the sanctions against Fenerty that she learned that the board had stripped Fenerty of his ability to hire and fire on his own. But Cornell says she saw no evidence of those restrictions.

She also was surprised by the board's claim that stronger language regarding sexual harassment had been added to the company's policies.

"The employee manual hasn't been updated in that way at all," she says, showing me the section on sexual harassment.

It makes her wonder, she says, if she's been a chump.

"Al Taubenberger basically said Vince just had a crush on me. The board said they never knew about the first harassment claim. Then they said they knew but forgot. What's the truth here?"

Only an independent investigation of the PPA will tell.

As reported, only the attorney general has the authority to audit the PPA. But with the AG's Office about to turn over in the election, there's no way the office would authorize an audit now.

You know who's chomping at the bit to do so?

Democratic AG candidate Josh Shapiro. If he's elected, he says, auditing the PPA will be his first order of business.

"This situation has raised deeper issues about what the PPA board members knew, when they knew it, what policies they had in place, whether they followed them," says Shapiro. "It's indicative of a culture that persists at the PPA and other institutions with two sets of rules: One for the powerful and the connected, and one for everyone else."

Cornell, who knew Shapiro when they were state reps together, is grateful for the support. But right now she's more grateful for the chance to tell her story. She hopes it helps other women stand up for themselves. And she hopes that one day her granddaughter, who is 5, will be proud that Cornell once took a stand, too.

"This is 2016," she says. "We should be beyond this by now."

polaner@phillynews.com

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly

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