Philly spent $2.2M since 2012 to settle sexual harassment cases. The controller says it's probably higher

Mayor Jim Kenney signs an executive order instituting a new policy aimed at creating a better environment for reporting sexual harassment at City Hall on Thursday, July 19, 2018.

The City of Philadelphia spent at least $2.2 million to settle sexual misconduct claims in the last six years, though the city controller suspects that number could be much higher.

In an audit of the city’s sexual harassment policies and payouts released Thursday, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart also indicated that Philadelphia’s current sexual harassment prevention policy is a “one-size-fits-all document that does not adequately meet the needs of its employees.”

The controller found that supervisors have not been given thorough instructions about what to do if an employee reports sexual harassment, and dozens of city departments don’t comply with sexual harassment policies, creating an environment that can stifle sexual harassment reporting and foster unequal discipline for harassers.

Overall, the current process for reporting sexual harassment is “opaque and complicated,” and the procedures present a “significant potential for financial liability,” the controller’s audit found.

Officials from Mayor Kenney’s administration say they’ve already taken steps to address the problems. Kenney signed an executive order Thursday instituting a new sexual harassment prevention policy that his administration claims will improve sexual misconduct reporting systems within city government.

The changes include a revamped training regimen, the addition of an electronic database for tracking claims, a new online form to file sexual harassment complaints, and a new investigatory oversight system.

Those changes don’t address the controller’s top recommendations outlined in the audit. Rhynhart said the city should create a “centralized” unit of personnel who would investigate all sexual harassment complaints across city government and codify a citywide discipline schedule to show how punishment should be doled out. The administration has not established either.

“What’s being presented right now, to me, is not what eventually needs to happen,” she said.

Kenney said Wednesday that the policy would be reviewed annually, and that his administration is committed to further implementing the recommendations.

Lawsuits, payouts, and elected officials

As part of the controller’s audit, the city Law Department produced documents showing sexual harassment lawsuit settlement payouts between July 2012 and April 2018 totaled about $2.2 million. That includes a $1.25 million payment last year to settle a lawsuit bought by a former police officer who said a commander sexually assaulted her.

But auditors found the Law Department has “inadequate” internal systems meant to track litigation, making it nearly impossible for officials to identify all sexual misconduct cases.

Rhynhart said she “absolutely” believes the payout figure over six years is higher than $2.2 million.

In addition, Rhynhart’s office opened a phone line for city employees to report issues related to sexual misconduct. Many of the incidents reported by callers through the phone line weren’t in any documentation provided by the city, even though some of those callers indicated they had reported the allegations or filed formal complaints.

The Law Department provided the Controller’s Office with 121 sexual misconduct case files spanning between July 2012 and April 2018. Of those cases, 63 were investigated and substantiated while 53 were deemed unsubstantiated. The controller did not audit the quality of those investigations.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Sheriff Jewell Williams gives remarks in 2014.

But it did find that the city has no procedure for handling sexual misconduct allegations against elected officials, as was the case in November when multiple allegations of sexual harassment by Sheriff Jewell Williams surfaced. He has denied the allegations and remains in office.

The controller’s audit found that earlier this year, Williams, as the head of his department, was the recipient of the final case file in a complaint lodged against him — and deemed “substantiated” by a city investigator — and was responsible for taking “appropriate measures.”

The Kenney administration says its new sexual harassment policy applies only to executive branch employees, and it can’t cover elected officials outside that scope.

Inconsistent handling of complaints and investigations

Currently, there are several ways for city employees to file sexual misconduct complaints, one of which is to go through the Employee Relations Unit (ERU) in the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations. Though, in most cases, sexual harassment complaints are dealt with at the departmental level.

The problem is, the processes for handling those complaints — as well as the discipline dispensed in response — aren’t consistent across departments. For example, the audit found that several departments had suspended employees for having “inappropriate conversations” while another issued only a written warning for an employee found to have groped a coworker. It found several cases in which discipline was more severe for lower-level employees than for supervisors in the same department who’d committed similar infractions.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Rebecca Rhynhart speaks after being sworn in as Philadelphia City Controller, at the Kimmel Center, in Philadelphia.

Monica Marchetti-Brock, director of the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations, said in the future, all complaints will go through the ERU, which will itself investigate only particularly “sensitive” matters. In most cases, that office will refer the complaint to the respective department’s human resources officer and will then review the case after an investigation is complete. (The ERU is currently staffed by three employees tasked with reviewing employment-related complaints across city government, which employs roughly 30,000 people.)

Marchetti-Brock said the city hasn’t standardized discipline across departments, as recommended by the controller.

“It’s very hard to standardize discipline across departments,” she said, “because there are different disciplinary matrices within each department and they are unionized employees.”

The new sexual harassment policy doesn’t include written guidelines for how supervisors should conduct such investigations, though Marchetti-Brock said the city hopes to standardize the process through improved training of supervisors and managers. It’s unclear how that process will be reconciled in departments that already have ingrained investigatory methods like, for example, the Police Department, which runs investigations through its Internal Affairs branch.

The city will also roll out a new case management database, making it easier to track complaints over time.

Will the training system be improved?

The controller also probed how often sexual harassment training has occurred. Under current city policy, supervisors are required to undergo sexual harassment training. But auditors found that more than 70 percent of employees working in a human resources capacity — the people responsible for overseeing sexual harassment complaints — either had never been trained or had “noncurrent” training.

In May, Philadelphia voters approved a ballot measure to require all city employees to receive sexual harassment training every three years.

City officials say they’re revising policies and developing new training materials in addition to increasing the regularity of training. Administration officials said all supervisors and managers will receive instructor-led training beginning in January, and by spring of next year, it will implement an online training module for all employees with access to a city computer.

Some experts say all sexual harassment training should be in-person. Chief Administrative Officer Christine Derenick-Lopez said the city is choosing to train some employees online because “it’s about reach.”

“We want to get the information out to employees as quickly as possible, and the best way to do that is to leverage technology,” she said, adding that “doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be some in-person training” in addition.

Chief of Staff Jane Slusser said the city expects to train all employees — whether that’s in-person or online — by the end of next year. The training for rank-and-file employees is expected to be tailored by department and will address reporting procedures, in addition to bystander intervention and LGBTQ sensitivity.