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Pa. senators unveil legislation related to sexual harassment in government

  • Ben Wasserstein/WITF
The Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.

 Commonwealth Media Services

The Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.

On Sept. 27, Mike Vereb, Gov. Josh Shapiro’s former legislative affairs secretary, abruptly resigned without explanation.

It turned out that Vereb was the subject of a months-long investigation for alleged sexual harassment against a former staffer.

The situation was one of several instances of sexual harassment in the Pennsylvania legislature. In their annual report, the National Women’s Defense League found five other cases – not counting Vereb’s – of sexual harassment in the legislature over the past several years.

Now, lawmakers are introducing legislation to address the fallout from some of those cases.

One bill introduced in the Senate would mandate third-party investigations into sexual harassment. In Vereb’s case, the Shapiro administration’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity did the investigation.

That bill is sponsored by President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, and Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery. 

In a statement, Ward said this is not a partisan issue, but a human one.

“While we can’t eradicate all instances, we can do our best to address these matters swiftly and ensure transparency in how taxpayer funds are disbursed,” Ward said.

Another bill, sponsored by Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, and Tracy Pennycuick, R-Berks, would require that settlement agreements related to sexual harassment or misconduct claims be posted publicly in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.

The state settled the Vereb case, but nondisclosure agreements prevented the parties from releasing information, including the settlement amount of roughly $295,000, which was paid with taxpayer money. WITF reported the amount after making an open-records request.

The Shapiro administration had previously been criticized for lack of transparency relating to the NDAs signed during its transition from the Gov. Tom Wolf administration.

Phillips-Hill said the legislation would protect victims of sexual harassment and ensure transparency over how tax dollars are spent.

“Our goal is to leave this state government a better place than we found it, and these bills will provide a better place to work and keep taxpayers better informed of how their money is used in Harrisburg,” she said.

The state House is expected to unveil a package related to sexual harassment issues on Wednesday.

The Senate Democratic Caucus is looking into the legislation, said spokesperson Savannah Thorpe.

Good-government Group Common Cause Pennsylvania, which among other things advocates for transparency and accountability from public officials, could not be reached for comment.

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