Will Pa. Senate probe Leach accusations?

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Several women have accused Pennsylvania state Sen. Daylin Leach of offensive comments or unwelcome touching. (WHYY file photo)

Several women have accused Pennsylvania state Sen. Daylin Leach of offensive comments or unwelcome touching. (WHYY file photo)

State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, is resisting calls to resign in the wake of accusations of sexual misconduct, saying he wants to work with Pennsylvania Senate leaders to address the allegations.

But lawyers and lawmakers in Harrisburg aren’t sure just what that will mean in practice.

A Sunday story in the Philadelphia Inquirer said several women reported offensive comments or unwelcome touching by Leach over the past several years.

The state Senate policy on workplace harassment says employees can file complaints for investigation by the Senate secretary and chief clerk.

But that’s not a great tool to vet the Leach charges because, for one thing, it applies to state employees, said Philadelphia-based employment lawyer Alice Ballard in an interview.

“The kinds of people who are talking about Sen. Leach are not employees,” Ballard said. “They’re people who’ve worked on his campaigns, volunteers, that sort of thing. So I don’t think the Senate policy would apply.”

Ballard said campaign volunteers have no legal recourse unless there’s a sexual assault that would merit a criminal complaint.

Tuesday afternoon, state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, released an addendum to the workplace harassment policy that applies only to Senate Democrats. (The four caucuses can adopt their own policies if they choose.)

The new policy arguably provides future victims more protection by routing their complaints directly to the chief clerk of the Senate rather than through elected officials.

It also says Senate Democrats “will maintain a practice of not initiating a settlement of workplace harassment complaint using Senate funds available to the Caucus.”

And the memo distributed to Democratic senators said the rules “are intended to also apply to non-employees to the extent such behavior constitutes a violation under the policy and this memo.”

Costa wasn’t available for clarification, but it’s not clear the new policy would help any of Leach’s accusers, since they reported their experience to a newspaper, not  Senate officials.

What about Daylin?

So what happens to the Leach allegations? It’s not clear.

The Senate Ethics Committee could investigate, if it gets a complaint, and recommend sanctions to the Senate.

Duquesne Law Professor Bruce Ledewitz said in an interview the Pennsylvania Constitution permits a two-thirds vote to expel a member of  the Senate for certain offenses, including, “disorderly behavior in its presence.”

Ledewitz said if senators wanted to expel a member for sexual harassment, they probably could.

“Disorderly behavior in its presence, could, in fact be interpreted to include the treatment of staff,” he said.

While Gov. Tom Wolf has called for Leach’s resignation, few lawmakers have followed suit.

One exception is state Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky, D-Delaware.

“This problem is not new,” she said. “It goes back a long time, and there is a pervasive culture in Harrisburg that has covered these things up. It is part of the good old boys network.”

Besides calling for Leach’s departure, Krueger-Braneky has introduced a bill to overhaul the legislature’s sexual harassment policies.

It would establish a single office to investigate complaints from all four caucuses of the legislature, so victims don’t have to work through political leaders to pursue a complaint.

It also bans secret taxpayer payouts in harassment cases, and ends nondisclosure agreements that keep the names of lawmakers in settlements secret.

State Sen. Judith Schwank, D-Berks, who is sponsoring a ban on nondisclosure settlements for sexual harassment cases statewide, isn’t prepared to call for Leach’s resignation, saying there’s more to learn about the facts of the case.

Just how the Senate will get at those facts remain a mystery.

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