Pa. House and Senate fight to keep sexual harassment records secret

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – The sexual harassment stories keep breaking. Reporters keep digging. But at the state Capitol, journalists will eventually hit a rock.

Eleven staffers and eight lawmakers say that system is by design. They called ABC27 after reports of misconduct surfaced, saying a culture of confusion and secrecy at the Capitol discourages people from reporting sexual harassment.

ABC27 filed right to know requests for harassment policies. There’s one for House Republicans, one for House Democrats, and one that applies to both parties in the Senate. Each policy defines harassment and discrimination differently. For example, the policy for House Republicans prohibits anyone from discriminating against a person’s veteran status but makes no mention of gender identity. The House Democrats mention gender identity but not veteran status.

The policies allow House Republicans, House Democrats, and the Senate to conduct investigations in different ways and require people claiming harassment to report to different places. House Republicans and both parties in the Senate give party leaders the power to dismiss complaints and determine the scope of investigations into fellow lawmakers. The policy for House Democrats does not specify who controls the investigation.

“Well, then obviously you’ve got a system that is set up to protect members of the legislature and not to actually create justice for employees,” state Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky (D-Delaware) said.

Kruger-Braneky introduced legislation that would, in part, set up an independent commission to investigate harassment complaints at the Capitol. She says lawmakers need to get their own house in order.

“I had a now-retired state senator stumble onto the House floor during my first term,” Krueger-Braneky said. “And he looked at me … and he said, ‘back in the good ol’ days, we didn’t have to be nice to the secretaries.’ That’s been the culture at the Capitol. That’s what we’re up against.”

Krueger Braneky says she, as a lawmaker, has had a hard time getting basic information about harassment.

So have journalists.

The chief clerks for the House and Senate denied ABC27’s right to know requests for sexual harassment training documents, records about lawsuits, and records showing the number of harassment complaints reported. They pointed to the section of Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law in which lawmakers carved out their own rules that allow them to withhold more records than other government entities.

Unlike those other government entities, the House and Senate also handle their own appeals instead of sending them to the neutral Office of Open Records that handles other disputes about public records.

The House denied ABC27’s appeal. The appeal in the Senate is pending.

ABC27 called Republican House Leader Dave Reed, Democratic House Leader Frank Dermody, Republican Senate Leader Jake Corman, Democratic Senate Leader Jay Costa, and Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati.

Dermody’s and Costa’s offices declined interviews. Reed’s, Corman’s, and Scarnati’s offices stopped returning calls. ABC27 showed up at their recent news conferences at the Capitol to get answers.

“What we try to do is bring in an independent body to review it,” Corman said, responding to a question about why the system gives party leadership power in sexual harassment investigations. “It’s not something that us as the senators do. We hire outside individuals to come in, experts in the field to hear the complaint, to do a full investigation and report back to myself and Senator Scarnati and Senator Costa.”

“We’ve already met with the House Democratic Caucus,” Reed said. “We’ve talked to the Senate … about potentially looking at some uniform policies where everyone’s on the same page and bringing those policies into the 21st century.”

“To be honest, any type of harassment, no matter what it’s based upon, is not acceptable, plain and simple,” Reed added. “You know, it shouldn’t matter what is specifically in one policy or the other. It should be a blanket. If you’re being harassed for any reason in the workplace, it’s just not acceptable.”

When ABC27 asked why right to know requests are being denied, Corman said, “You’d have to talk to Senator Scarnati about that.”

Scarnati walked away when ABC27 tried to ask him about sexual harassment.

“I’m not specifically sure which records you’re referencing,” Costa said when asked about the right to know denials. “So until I have the opportunity to go back and see the request that was made, I think as much as possible we should have records be open, provided they provide and conform to the Open Records law.”

When pressed about ABC27’s request for the number of sexual harassment complaints, Costa said, ” I think that’s an appropriate request.”

Costa’s office followed up with the following statement:

“Having reviewed your appeal and subsequent denial, your first three requests fall wholly under the auspices of the Chief Clerk’s office. Complaints and training are processed and coordinated by that office alone. As to your fourth request, I can confirm that no lawsuits regarding sexual harassment were filed against the Senate Democratic Caucus nor has our caucus entered into a financial settlement with an employee who complained of sexual harassment.”

A spokesperson for Dermody passed on an interview, saying there is “nothing to add.”

Women at the Capitol, on the other hand, have plenty to say.

“We’re up against a culture where there are no women in any of the senior leadership positions in any of the caucuses,” Krueger-Braneky said. “Where we have budget negotiations and there’s no women at the table. And so there is a culture that we need to change and that’s one of the things I’m seeking to do.”

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