Pennsylvania Board of Education chairman resigns amid sexual misconduct allegations

Gov. Wolf accepted the resignation of the chairman of the state Board of Education on Thursday after the Inquirer and Daily News reported that a number of women said he had pursued sexual relationships with them when they were teenagers and he was years their senior.

The chairman, Larry Wittig, had joined the board in 2001.

“The alleged behavior that has come to light is reprehensible,” J.J. Abbott, Wolf’s spokesman, said in a statement. “The administration is in the process of identifying potential replacements for Mr. Wittig’s seat on the state board and will be designating a new chair in the very near future.”

Wittig on Thursday was also removed from the president’s leadership council at Drexel University, his alma mater. Officials at Philadelphia University-Thomas Jefferson University requested his resignation from their board of trustees, on which he has served since 2005, according to a school spokeswoman.

Wittig, 68, on Tuesday said he “categorically” denied the allegations.

On Thursday, Wittig told the Lehighton Times News that he had had sex with one of the women, but denied it had been “an ongoing relationship,” as she contends.

“It was a lapse in judgment at one time,” he said.

Several of the women said they met Wittig in the early 1980s when they were rowers for Harriton High School in Lower Merion and he was a member of the Vesper Boat Club on Boathouse Row, where they practiced. At the time, Wittig was in his early 30s and married.

The women described him as a disciplined and accomplished coach who made sexually charged jokes, took them to nightclubs, and hit on them.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN
Annette DeMichele told of her relationship with Larry Wittig.

“All of the time, he kept making passes at me,” Margo Boyle, one of the rowers, said. “And I just, I blew him off. I didn’t mind the passes. But I just knew nothing was going to happen, because he was creepy.”

Annette DeMichele, another Harriton rower, said Wittig took her to a nude beach when she was 17, starting what would become a year-and-a-half sexual relationship. DeMichele, 53, said she considered it consensual at the time but, given their age difference and the fact that he was her coach, now feels that she was coerced.

She said the relationship continued when she went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where she rowed and Wittig coached. She broke it off her sophomore year. Wittig resigned from the school in 1984 amid an ombudsman’s investigation into, in part, his relationship with DeMichele.

Another woman, who asked to not be named, said she had a nearly two-year sexual relationship with Wittig that started when she was 16 and he was 29.

Camera icon Annette DeMichele
Annette DeMichele in high school

In 1970, when he was 21, Wittig was charged with raping a 15-year-old friend of his sister’s. On Tuesday, Wittig said the girl lied because her family was trying to extort money from his. The victim, reached by the Inquirer and Daily News, asked to not be named but maintained that Wittig had raped her.

“He got away with it. Of course, I was humiliated. I was unhappy. I’m still unhappy about it,” she said. “But what am I supposed to do when they say he’s not guilty?”

Wittig, a Republican, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

He remains president of the Tamaqua Area school board, a position he has held since 1995. Raymond J. Kinder, the district’s superintendent, declined to comment Thursday.

Wittig was appointed to the state board of education by Gov. Tom Ridge in 2001 and made chairman by Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011. Ridge could not be reached Thursday. Corbett said he was not aware of the 1970 criminal case at the time that he made the decision.

“I have no recollection of that,” he said.

After being contacted by a reporter, Wittig on Tuesday sent a letter to the Department of Education saying he no longer planned “on attending nor participating as a member of the State Board of Education.” Wolf’s office said Wittig also spoke that day with Pedro Rivera, the department’s secretary.

While Wittig did not officially offer to step down in the letter, Wolf’s office said it was considering it and his conversation with Rivera as a resignation.

“Your resignation is accepted and effective upon its receipt,” Eric Gutshall, Wolf’s secretary of intergovernmental affairs, wrote in a letter to Wittig on Thursday.