With sexual-harassment scandals in Harrisburg, GOP legislature's response? Let's study it

Pennsylvania Budget
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where lawmakers have jousted over the best policies to combat sexual harassment. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

HARRISBURG — The Republican-controlled House of Representatives this week passed two resolutions to study the issue of sexual harassment in the state Capitol, with the review set to take about a year to complete.

But more than a dozen bills that would make changes to toughen sexual-harassment policies are stalled in multiple committees — several of them predating the #MeToo movement.

Republican lawmakers say that they want to understand the scope of the problem before acting on bills to combat it and that conducting a study does not preclude further action. But Democrats, who have championed many of the stalled measures, say they are frustrated that their proposals for concrete policy changes are going unheard.

“Newspapers across Pennsylvania have covered the fact that there is a problem in our state government and state Capitol,” said Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky (D., Delaware), who has introduced legislation that would create an independent office to investigate sexual-harassment complaints. “No one can deny there’s a problem, and these bills propose solutions.”

Sexual-harassment and misconduct scandals involving state employees and elected officials have swept Harrisburg and the U.S. Congress during the last year, forcing a public examination of the enforcement of complaints.

In the state Capitol, several lawmakers have faced allegations ranging from unwanted touching to sexual assault. The Inquirer and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported late last year that Democratic state House leaders had secretly settled a sexual-harassment complaint against Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D., Berks) for nearly $250,000. Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R., Delaware) has been accused of abusing or sexually assaulting two women he once dated — one of them a fellow lawmaker. Both men have denied the accusations.

In all, at least $3.2 million in taxpayer funds has been paid out in the last eight years to resolve more than two dozen sexual-harassment complaints against government and public employees, according to an analysis by the Post-Gazette and the Inquirer and Daily News.

The resolutions that passed the House this week were backed by Republicans. They call for creating a task force within 25 days, with its members selected by legislative leaders and members of the Wolf administration. It will be required to complete its work within 12 months. The resolutions do not require Senate approval.

The sexual-harassment bills proposed by Democrats include proposals that among other things would change the reporting process and institute more training for state employees.

One House bill, authored by Krueger-Braneky, would establish an independent Office of Compliance to investigate complaints in the legislature. Several other House bills would extend protections under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to include interns and volunteers, along with expanding the act to include private employers with one or more employees.

A Senate bill would prohibit nondisclosure agreements in sexual-harassment settlements.

Even as those and other bills have remained unheard, sexual harassment and misconduct has continued, Krueger-Braneky said.

Since 2017, she said she has heard about a dozen stories of sexual misconduct within state government, including several this year.

Nine of the stalled bills are in the House’s Labor & Industry Committee, with two of them sitting in committee since January. The resolutions to study sexual harassment that passed the House earlier this week were proposed in mid-April.

Rep. Rob Kauffman (R., Franklin), who chairs the Labor & Industry Committee, said in an email that his committee was taking the same approach to sexual harassment that it did after the scandal involving former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. That is when lawmakers were pushing to strengthen child-protection laws.

Kauffman has agreed to at least discuss some of the stalled bills after the legislature returns from its summer break in September.

“I know that some people want to run, and this is crawling,” Kauffman said during a meeting of his committee last week.

Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R., Cumberland), one of the sponsors on the resolutions to create a task force to study the issue, said the review was necessary to collect data about frequency of sexual harassment in each of the government’s departments.

“This isn’t a study of whether or not it happens,” Delozier said Monday, as the House was voting on the resolutions. “It does not preclude us from doing anything on the other bills. We are not stalled, we are not delayed, we are not going to say, `Wait for information in 18 months.’ ”

She added that the other bills in committee are not “perfect pieces of legislation” and that there are some Republicans who oppose the bills and fear they could cause “unintended consequences.”

Gillian@temple.edu