Boorish behavior, unwanted advances: welcome to Vince Fenerty's Parking Authority

Vincent J. Fenerty Jr. was ousted from his job as executive director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority following sexual harassment complaints.

Sue Cornell wanted her boss Vincent Fenerty's behavior to stop.

The long, uncomfortable gazes during meetings. The begging her to be with him. The unwanted touches - hugging her, patting her leg, rubbing her shoulders - too numerous to keep count.

But she had a fear: If Fenerty left her alone, he would only target other women at the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA).

Her concern was "him stopping the behavior with me, but then transferring the behavior to the other females in the office," Cornell wrote in a June 2015 letter to the PPA's human resources department that she has since shared with a Daily News columnist. She declined to be interviewed for this article.

"There is a constant level of inappropriate behavior with Vince toward the other females in our area," she continued. "We joke and say things like, 'Yeah, it's a good thing he doesn't say stuff like this to other people, he would get sued - at least it's only us.' "

Fenerty's behavior ultimately caught up with him. He resigned last month as the PPA's executive director. A review of the time line leading to that moment shows a career dotted with improprieties and an organization that failed to tally the marks, handing out minimal discipline, or excusing Fenerty's transgressions as he rose through the ranks.

When Cornell's story became public in the Inquirer last month, the board defended its decision to keep him on the job. Then a second woman came forward to say publicly that she had also been harassed - something she reported to the board in 2006 - and the board changed course. It told the 60-year-old Fenerty he would be fired, prompting his resignation.

The public's learning of two cases, it seemed, was too much.

Inside the parking authority, it was different.

At least one person - and potentially many more - within the agency knew of both cases long before the Inquirer wrote about them. Others had reason to hold at least peripheral knowledge.

The board's spokesman has said four current board members and the authority's general counsel knew of both incidents. Both victims recounted telling many people, including supervisors, about Fenerty's sexually boorish behavior. In formal documents both listed other women they said could also tell of Fenerty's inappropriate behavior either because they had seen it or been subjected to it themselves.

"He had a reputation for just being inappropriate with people, particularly women," said a high-level employee who has been at the authority for more than a decade.

The two cases in question bookend nearly 15 years, a period during which Fenerty's salary grew to $223,000 - $6,000 more than Mayor Kenney makes. Even with his resignation in response to the scandal, he stands to collect an estimated $154,620-a-year pension.

Fenerty, reached last week, declined to comment.

The first of Fenerty's alleged victims is now in her 50s and lives in Somerton. Speaking on the condition that she not be named, she said Fenerty's harassment started in 2002 and continued for years.

In documents from that time - communications with her attorney, the draft of a lawsuit never filed, emails sent to herself as a record - and again in recent interviews, the former PPA employee described persistent lewd behavior by Fenerty.

At work he encouraged her to "get rid of" her husband and told her she needed to "get laid." He left the office one night saying he was going to go home and masturbate. He twice told her that a pair of burgundy ankle boots she was wearing turned him on.

She never wore the shoes to work again.

The harassment was, at times, within view and earshot of other parking authority employees. She said Fenerty sat on her lap at an after-work gathering at a bar in 2004 and stuck his tongue in her ear. At a similar party the same year, she said Fenerty slipped his hand up the back of her shirt and unhooked her bra. She ran to the bathroom, humiliated, and left.

"I have been sexually harassed by Vince Fenerty at just about every fund-raiser or party that I have attended in the past [four] years," the woman wrote in 2006.

The woman said she complained about the harassment to a coworker, who later became her supervisor, to no avail.

In 2006, the woman received a worse than normal performance review, she contends as retaliation for complaining about the harassment. She hired a lawyer and brought her allegations formally to the authority, which led to mediation and a $150,000 offer to settle the matter.

She turned it down, not wanting to be assigned to the authority's office at the airport, which was a term of the agreement. The authority's spokesman, Martin O'Rourke, said she withdrew her complaint.

A few years later, the woman was fired after being accused of making a questionable financial investment with an agency contractor and of sending the contractor sexually charged poems. The woman says that the poems were a joke and that her termination was a form of retaliation.

O'Rourke would not say if Fenerty was disciplined for his behavior toward the woman.

Fenerty was promoted twice during the period in which the woman says she was being harassed, first in 2003 and again in 2005, when he was named executive director. O'Rourke said the board wasn't notified of the woman's allegations until 2006.

But Fenerty's promotion did come after the woman says she complained to her supervisor in 2004.

Verged on obsessive

As described in the letter from Cornell, Fenerty's behavior toward the 44-year-old former state representative spanned two years and verged on obsessive.

He told Cornell she was perfect for him. He discouraged her from going on a date with a man who had asked for her number, explaining that he was trying to "protect" her. He manipulated her work schedule, Cornell says, so he could spend more time with her.

Some of the more aggressive harassment happened at out-of-town work events and conferences. She said that on a visit to Harrisburg in early June 2015, as the two walked back to their hotel rooms, Fenerty embraced her in a hug.

"OK, Vince, that's enough," she recounted telling him. "Good night."

When she tried to back away, he put his hands on her shoulders. He closed his eyes and puckered his lips expectantly.

She said no.

He asked for a kiss on the cheek.

Wanting it to stop, she turned her head and let him kiss the side of her face.

Cornell wrote in her letter that the following week she told her boss, Rick Dickson, that Fenerty had tried to kiss her. She talked at length, she said, about how uncomfortable his advances made her, how she worried about going on more work trips with him, and how negatively it was impacting her ability to do her job.

Cornell said Dickson told her he would talk to Fenerty. In fact, he told her he had already talked to Fenerty about this once before - when he made an inappropriate comment about Cornell in front of him.

Cornell said Dickson told her later that night that he had warned Fenerty to maintain a strictly professional relationship with her.

"I said I just hope he listens and really understands this time," she wrote. "I told him I had told [Fenerty] many, many times and other people have talked to him about this and it has continued, so I don't know if it will be enough."

Almost a decade

While almost a decade separates the two harassment complaints against Fenerty, many of the same executive and board members led the authority during that time.

Dickson, for example, was copied on the paperwork when the first victim took a medical leave the month that she and her attorney were in settlement negotiations with the authority. The woman says she was struggling with depression. The sexual harassment allegations were not noted on the paperwork for her leave.

Dickson was promoted to co-deputy executive director of the agency last month when Fenerty resigned. He shares the title with Corrine O'Connor.

O'Connor's name also is on paperwork from the first victim's file: an appeal in which she claimed her performance review was based off "personal issues" rather than her job performance and her termination paperwork. Neither papers mention the sexual harassment claims.

Dickson and O'Connor, through O'Rourke, the authority spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this article. In a brief interview last month Dickson said he was unaware of the first sexual harassment complaint against Fenerty. Through O'Rourke, he later declined to answer further questions.

Four of the people on the authority's six-member board today were on the board when the first woman filed her complaint in 2006. They are Chairman Joseph Ashdale, City Councilman Al Taunbenberger, Russell Wagner, and Karen Wrigley.

O'Rourke said those individuals were notified about the woman's complaint in 2006 but had forgotten about it by the time Cornell's complaint came before them last year.

Faced with an independent investigation that found Fenerty had harassed Cornell, the board voted to strip him of some work privileges, including his ability to make promotions and to take overnight work trips without board permission. They let him keep his job, but required that he pay the investigator's $30,000 bill.

Taubenberger has denied O'Rourke's explanation that the board forgot about the first harassment case when weighing Fenerty's punishment for the second. Rather, he says, the board was never told of the 2006 complaint. Michael Cibik, who was on the board in 2006 but no longer is, has also denied the board was told.

The other board members have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

"Let me be very blunt: My decision would have been different in . . . 2015" had he known about the earlier case, Taubenberger said. "We would have been saying, 'Fire the guy now. Why even have a discussion any further?' It was not brought to our attention."

Taubenberger said the board's general counsel, Dennis G. Weldon, "absolutely had a responsibility" to tell the board about the first case when they confronted Cornell's complaint.

Weldon was involved in both cases. He was privy to the negotiations on the first woman's settlement offer. Taubenberger said Weldon, as general counsel, told the board about Cornell's case.

Asked by the Inquirer whether Weldon also forgot about the earlier case, O'Rourke declined to comment. Weldon, through O'Rourke, has declined to be interviewed.

Taubenberger placed some blame on Ashdale, saying the board depends on its chair to stay informed. He stopped short of saying Ashdale knew about the first case and failed to tell the board.

Ashdale has been chairman for 15 years.

He is a childhood friend of former state Rep. John Perzel, a Republican leader who engineered that party's takeover of the authority from the Democrats in 2001. As board chairman - a part-time post - Ashdale is paid $75,000 a year. That adds to a $159,700 salary he receives as business manager of District Council 21 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.

Ashdale's long relationship with Perzel is just one of the many personal and political ties that bind the people who run the parking authority, a Republican patronage haven.

Fenerty was deep in ward politics when he was hired in 1983. A year later, he became Republican leader of the 31st Ward, a position he still holds.

Fenerty went to North Catholic High School at the same time as Rep. John Taylor, who, as one of two Republicans in the state House from Philadelphia, holds sway over the authority. The two were in different circles. Taylor said they only got to know one another when Fenerty started working at the authority.

Taylor said he learned about Fenerty's interest in Cornell from Fenerty himself. He said he told Fenerty his fixation with Cornell, a subordinate, was inappropriate and should stop. But he described a cycle in which he would warn Fenerty about his behavior, think it had stopped, and then realize it had not.

Often the red flag was seeing Cornell with Fenerty at meetings where she had no official reason to be. Asked if he ever talked to Cornell about the situation, he said he did "in short sentences."

"Like 'So, what are you doing here?' I didn't have any long conversations about it," Taylor said. "She would just make a face almost like I didn't have to talk to her about it. I got it."

Taylor said he never talked to anyone about Fenerty's behavior. He called Fenerty a friend and didn't think it was his place. But he said in retrospect he wishes he had discussed the situation with Ashdale because perhaps if both of them had talked to Fenerty, Fenerty might have listened.

"I just was hoping at every turn, kind of like a parent talking to a kid, that they would get it," he said. "Obviously my words were not listened to."

tnadolny@phillynews.com

215-854-2730

@TriciaNadolny

Staff writer Claudia Vargas contributed to this article.