Harrisburg's answer to sexual harassment disappoints | Editorial

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State Rep. Tarah Toohil (R., Luzerne) listens to her attorney, Jarrett Ferentino, as he addresses the media after a hearing on a Protection from Abuse Order against State Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R., Delaware) at the Luzerne County Courthouse.

At least one line may be hidden in next year’s budget that Harrisburg lawmakers are finalizing: settlement of sexual harassment lawsuits against lawmakers.

According to a report by the Inquirer and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, at least $3.2 million of taxpayer money was spent in the past eight years to settle sexual harassment cases. That’s $400,000 annually on average.

This amount, brought to light only by a Right-to-Know request,  may seem like a rounding error compared with the overall $32.7 billion state budget, but it’s troubling nonetheless – since it only counts cases that were brought to court.

That’s why it’s so disappointing that while there are pending bills in  both the House and Senate that could take on sexual harassment, the only actual action taken so far is from House Republicans, who  commissioned a yearlong study on the issue.

That’s an insult to taxpayers in general and women in particular, particularly those in state government who have witnessed the grim unfolding of a number of incidents:

In December, State Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) was accused by eight women and three men of inappropriate behavior, including touching a female staffer without her consent. These allegations did not prevent some of Harrisburg’s top Dems from being on Daylin’s birthday fundraiser host committee last week.

In late February, State Rep. Tarah Toohil (R., Luzerne) and a female lobbyist accused State Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R., Delaware) of abuse. Since then one House report found that the accusations are credible, another found that Miccarelli violated House policy by retaliating against his accuser, and Toohil obtained a three-year restraining order against Miccarelli from a judge. While Miccarelli announced that he will not seek reelection and was stripped from some of his committee duties, he was never sanctioned.

These are only the most recent allegations coming out of Harrisburg. And it’s not even counting an earlier scandal in Harrisburg that involved judges and other officials distributing pornographic emails.

The bills include a Senate bill that would prohibit nondisclosure agreement in sexual harassment cases and a House bill that would create a body to investigate claims.

Neither got a vote. Instead, Republicans gave themselves a break from dealing with the issue.  Do they hope that in a year when the study is complete, the issue will have blown over?

Republicans often say that the government should run more like a business.  They should consider this: It took Starbucks a week from a racist arrest in their Philadelphia store to announce that it was closing all of its 8,000 stores for implicit bias training to all of their employees. It took the Weinstein Company three days to fire Harvey Weinstein after a New York Times investigative report.

Harrisburg prefers not to wash its dirty laundry in an election year. Investigating allegations would require both parties to have a discussion on sexual harassment policies and to risk losing popular members of their team that are found to be bad apples. None of the bills proposed will end sexual harassment. But they are steps to make things right.  Claiming that we don’t know enough about the problem is an unacceptable stall tactic.