#MeToo complaints against Pa. lawmakers would be investigated by independent office under legislation

By: - March 26, 2019 6:30 am

Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, speaks in favor her bill to establish an independent body to investigate legislative sexual harassment March 25, 2019 (Capital-Star photo).

With little fanfare, the Pennsylvania state House adopted new sexual harassment rules at the start of session, streamlining a process whose vagaries had allowed members to stick around despite misconduct allegations — even from fellow members.

On Monday, Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate proposed a process to look into sexual misconduct in the age of #MeToo completely independent from state elected officials or standing committees.

“We believe that we need a separate investigation with someone who is not worried about leadership votes for reelection,” Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, said at a press conference.

Under the proposal, the General Assembly would create an independent office to investigate harassment complaints against lawmakers.

The bills in the House and Senate would also ban public money from settlements and the use of non-disclosure agreements to hide the names of members credibly accused of harassment.

Rules adopted by the House earlier this year gave the chamber’s Ethics Committee the responsibility to investigate harassment. If an investigation leads to criminal charges and the member is found guilty, that person will be automatically expelled.

In the absence of formal charges, the House Ethics Committee could recommend expulsion based on an investigation. House Republican spokesperson Mike Straub said it would be “hard to imagine” leadership not following a committee recommendation.

If the committee finds a complaint credible, a member “shall not benefit from a nondisclosure agreement” under the new rules.

Allegations of sexual misconduct against several state lawmakers have added local urgency to the national #MeToo reckoning over the past few years.

Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler, resigned from the House on March 18, shortly after a woman who accused the lawmaker of sexual assault filed a formal complaint with leadership. The Dauphin County District Attorney is investigating the alleged assault.

Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, was accused by staff of inappropriate touching and discomforting sexual banter. Another woman, Cara Taylor, has accused him of rape when Leach was in private practice.

Leach has denied all the charges and filed a defamation suit against Taylor and two of her supporters.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed that House Democrats paid a former staffer of Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Berks, $248,000 in 2015 to settle accusations of sexual harassment.

But it’s the case of former Rep. Nick Miccarelli in particular that showcased the House’s lack of teeth to deal with harassment complaints.

Miccarelli, R-Delaware, was accused of sexual assault by one woman and domestic violence by fellow Rep. Tarah Toohil.

Despite calls for his resignation within the Republican caucus, Miccarelli refused. Leadership claimed to have no recourse, and Miccarelli retired with his pension at the end of his term in 2018.

The proposal to create an independent office has support in Senate from first-year Democratic Sens. Katie Muth and Maria Collett, both of Montgomery County.

It’s not the only idea out there.

Earlier this year, Toohil and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, proposed legislation to create a new board to investigate all misconduct, sexual or ethical, by lawmakers. The board would consist of legislators, “experts, and lay persons,” according to a proposal summary.

Krueger made clear on Monday her bill’s language wasn’t crafted in haste or without thought.

“This is the ninth draft of this bill,” Krueger said. “It was not rushed just to chase a headline.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.