We consider City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s determination to investigate City Hall sexual harassment payouts as an early payoff of having this office occupied by a woman, and by someone who comes from outside the political establishment. This particular investigation has the potential of establishing better guidelines for disclosures in state and federal government, too.
Rhynhart is promising to investigate payouts and settlement policies throughout the city, and disclose her full findings to the public. That can help rip back the curtain on a dirty secret that permeates public and private workplaces.
The wave of allegations of sexual harassment in recent months began in the movie industry, with Harvey Weinstein’s serial harassment. Since then, there have been cases strong enough for members of Congress, like Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D., Mich.), Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.), and Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.) to resign or give up re-election plans. State Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) recently put his congressional run on hold following accusations of harassment.
Rhynhart wants to figure out how sex harassment settlement amounts are determined and paid in the city, and whether there are any rules governing such payouts. But uncovering these payments, which are often deeply buried, will take time.
Neither city nor state departments have uniform policies on payouts and do not routinely disclose settlements. Given the law of averages, it’s probably doubtful that only Sheriff Jewell Williams and Police Chief Inspector Carl Holmes have been accused of sexual harassment. When PPA chief Vince Fenerty’s recent harassment scandal came to light, so did a previous accusation and payout.
Harassers do a good job covering their tracks. For the most part, harassment and ensuing settlements are covered up. Some offenders even hypocritically argue that secrecy protects the victim, when it’s obvious that the secrecy protects the predator. That is yet another reason for Rhynhart to make her findings public.
Delaware County’s Meehan disguised his settlement with a decades-younger staffer as “severance.” It wasn’t severance. It was hush money. Adding to his disgrace, Meehan refused to disclose the amount.
Rhynhart notes City Hall rumblings about how victims are shut up with promotions, demotions, raises, transfers, and firings. That’s not just how it works in government, but also how it works in the private sector. But most victims don’t even bother filing formal complaints. Consider a Department of the Interior survey taken in early 2017 that showed that roughly 4,900 department employees said they were sexually harassed over a year. Only 12 filed complaints.
Workplace harassment is bad enough. But when it happens in government, the damage is compounded by a betrayal of the public trust, and the use of public money to make the cases go away. It’s critical we find a way to illuminate the corners where these secrets hide and expose them to light. Whether Rhynhart’s investigation into the city will have bearing at the state and federal level remains to be seen, but it will have bearing on the women who find themselves harassed and silenced.