House ethics panel prepares to take complaints as lawmaker accused of harassment officially resigns

A special election for former Democratic Rep. Mike Zabel’s Delaware County seat is set for primary day on May 16

By: - March 16, 2023 4:13 pm
State Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol on Monday, March 29, 2022 (Capital-Star photo).

State Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol on Monday, March 29, 2022 (Capital-Star photo).

Pennsylvania House Speaker Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, called for a special election coinciding with the May 16 primary to fill the seat vacated by former Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware, who announced his resignation last week amid accusations of sexual harassment.

Only two hours after Zabel’s resignation became official at 9 a.m. Thursday, the bipartisan, eight-member House Ethics Committee, which is charged with investigating complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination, met for the first time.

The committee voted to adopt its rules after an hour-long closed-door meeting.

Ethics Committee Chairperson Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, said the panel would soon make a complaint process available on its public website but would accept complaints through its counsel until then. 

In brief remarks at the opening of the meeting, Bullock said the committee would operate under the House’s newly expanded rules on sexual harassment and discrimination, which previously had limited who could make complaints against lawmakers to House employees.

The new rules allow anyone who experiences harassment or discrimination by a House lawmaker on House property or House-sponsored events to file a complaint. 

Zabel has been accused by at least three women of inappropriate advances and touching at events outside of the Capitol. 

In January, Service Employees International Union lobbyist Andi Perez spoke at a public hearing on House rules about being touched by a male lawmaker as they discussed legislation outside of the Capitol.

Without naming Zabel, Perez said the lawmaker caressed her leg and continued after she moved away from him. The accusation prompted discussions about sexual harassment in the state Capitol and the need for more robust protections for victims. 

Earlier this month, Broad + Liberty, a Philadelphia-focused news website, published an account from an unnamed lawmaker who said a drunken Zabel put his arm around her and propositioned her and then followed her to her car when she rebuffed his advances. 

Broad + Liberty said the lawmaker’s accusation corroborated dozens of sources who said Zabel was the lawmaker who Perez had accused. 

Rep. Abby Major, R-Armstrong, last week identified herself as the woman in the Broad + Liberty report and said in a news conference that she learned of two other women who had similar experiences with Zabel.

Major and other Republicans, including Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, who is the ranking Republican member of the Ethics Committee, have said the new sexual harassment and discrimination rules don’t go far enough. By limiting conduct to House property or sponsored events, accusations such as those against Zabel may not be within the committee’s jurisdiction.

Zabel’s resignation brings the Democrats’ majority in the House to 101 against the Republicans’ 100 votes. The GOP lost a House vote when then Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver was elevated to the Senate in a January special election. A special election will also be held May 16 for Culver’s former seat.

The 163rd Legislative District in southeast Delaware County is likely to return to Democratic control. In the 2022 election, Zabel won 65% of the vote in his newly redrawn district and lost in only three of the 48 precincts. Zabel out performed U.S. Sen. John Fetterman in the top-of-ticket U.S. Senate race.

In 2020, voters in the precincts that now comprise the 163rd District voted for the Democratic House candidates by similar margins. 

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.