In the wake of recent high-profile sexual harassment allegations coming to light, lawmakers in Pennsylvania are proposing to reform how state government handles allegations concerning legislators.
State Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky (D-Delaware) plans to introduce a bill that would ban non-disclosure agreements and prohibit use of taxpayer money for settling claims in sexual harassment or assault cases that involve lawmakers.
The bill is modeled after the “Me Too” bill recently introduced in U.S. Congress, named after the social media awareness campaign for victims of sexual harassment and assault.
Krueger-Braneky said the state needs to have clearer rules for how to handle these issues.
“Even with right-to-know requests being filed, it’s still very, very hard to get information on what settlements were agreed to, how much was paid out, and which members were implicated,” she said.
At the federal level, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the bill in Congress, says more than $15 million in taxpayer dollars have been used to settle about 260 harassment claims since 1997. The claims involved race, age and sexual offenses.
Pennsylvania does not publicly document similar instances systematically.
Some, though, have been uncovered. In 2011, House Majority Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) approved $30,000 in taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment claim against then State Rep. Jewell Williams (D-Philadelphia). Williams, who’s been Philadelphia’s elected sheriff since 2012, is currently facing a slate of more recent allegations.
Krueger-Brankey’s bill would make convictions or settlements by state lawmakers public.
State Senator Judy Schwank (D-Berks) announced a similar bill earlier this month.
Neither of the bills have yet been formally introduced, and therefore legislative leaders declined to comment.
Kristen Houser, spokesperson for Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said it’s possible that, without non-disclosure agreements, some cases will have to go to court. This could bring financial and emotional burden to the victims, but she said it’s important that victims can speak the truth.
“If you take away a tool that has been largely used to hide and cover up sexual misconduct and — as a tool — to allow serial perpetration to continue, we might be in a better spot when more people can feel like, ‘I can speak, I can come forward,’” Houser said.
She added that offering paid leave or remote work assignments would be a benefit, because victims often leave the job after experiencing sexual harassment or assault. Krueger-Braneky’s bill would require employers to offer those options.
Krueger-Braneky, who recently shared a “Me too” story on Facebook regarding a college professor, said the cause is personal.
“When more and more people come forward to name an injustice that’s happening – so many people that it can’t be ignored anymore – I think that has a potential to affect a cultural tipping point. I hope that’s happening with the #MeToo movement,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that there hadn’t been documented uses of taxpayer funds used to settle harassment claims against legislators.