GOP lawmakers say Shapiro’s response to harassment case shows room for improvement
‘It’s not just a problem in the administration, it’s a problem in the House and Senate,’ state Rep. Abby Major said
Gov. Josh Shapiro declined to provide specifics when questioned by reporters about a harassment claim against former aide Mike Vereb during a press conference on Oct. 5, 2023. (Photo via Commonwealth Media Services)
As lawmakers return to Harrisburg this week, some in the state House and Senate say they will be discussing a response to Gov. Josh Shapiro’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against a longtime ally and cabinet secretary that reportedly led to a secret settlement with the accuser.
In response to statements by the administration that it has “robust procedures” for investigating reports of discrimination and harassment, several Republican women lawmakers told The Capital-Star they don’t believe the process protected the accuser.
“Clearly the status quo is broken,” state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) said. “The process that is in place didn’t take into account the concerns of the victim.”
Phillips-Hill also responded to a report citing two unnamed sources by SpotlightPA that the Shapiro administration reached a settlement with the former employee who accused former Legislative Affairs Secretary Mike Vereb of making improper, lewd and sexually suggestive remarks.
Using public money to resolve complaints involving state officials is unfair to taxpayers, and reinforces the need to examine how the state protects vulnerable employees who are subject to discriminatory behavior, Phillips-Hill said.
A spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) said on Oct. 10 that Senate members are considering options to identify solutions that could include hearings, though her spokesperson had no additional information on Friday.
Clearly the status quo is broken
– State Sen Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York)
Shapiro Press Secretary Manuel Bonder said he could not respond to questions about SpotlightPA’s report, which said sources indicated that the settlement includes a non-disclosure clause. But Bonder repeated an earlier statement that the commonwealth takes allegations of discrimination and harassment seriously.
“Robust procedures are in place for thoroughly investigating reports of discrimination and harassment – and these procedures are implemented whenever complaints of discrimination or harassment are made and provide detailed guidance to help ensure that allegations are promptly and fully investigated and that employees feel comfortable to report misconduct,” the statement reads.
Bonder also pointed to comments by state Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton) after a meeting between Shapiro and all eight female Democratic state senators on Oct. 4.
“We came out of that very confident that he is handling this, his administration — and he is right. He has two powerful women that know what they’re doing when it comes to personnel issues. So I’m very confident he and his administration is handling this as best as they can,” Boscola said, referring to Chief of Staff Dana Fritz and General Counsel Jennifer Selber.
But state Rep. Abby Major (R-Armstrong), with whom the former administration employee confided in March after Major publicly accused another lawmaker of improper conduct, said the process utterly failed to protect the woman because Vereb remained in a position of power over her.
“At the very least they should have been separated,” Major said. “She could have been moved to a different department. She was left in a situation where she felt she was unsafe.”
A complaint filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in May and obtained by The Capital-Star details allegations by the former employee going back to February.
The complaint alleges that when the former employee rejected Vereb’s advances and objected to his behavior, he retaliated by scheduling a meeting with human resources officials. When she questioned Vereb about the nature of the meeting, he told her he had to “protect himself,” and made vague references to concerns about her job performance.
When the former employee reported Vereb’s statements and conduct to administration human resources officials, the former employee was told no action would be taken until the conclusion of an investigation, the complaint alleges.
The former employee was required to continue working closely with Vereb but was overcome by fear that she would be subject to further misogynistic conduct and retaliation and was unable to return to work, the complaint claims.
Vereb resigned abruptly on Sept. 27, a day before The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the allegations against him and the administration contained in the complaint.
Republican lawmakers have also been critical of Shapiro’s public handling of the matter, from what Phillips-Hill called “a glowing press release” the day Vereb resigned about his service to the state in the governor’s office and in the attorney general’s office.
Ward on Oct. 2 criticized Shapiro’s office for making official comments despite it being a personnel matter and providing conflicting information. Ward said it raised concerns about how the administration’s workplace practices and how the situation may have contributed to ongoing delays in the budget and whether taxpayer money was spent.
“The alleged offender remained in his influential role until he tendered his resignation leaving the victim in an unsafe space, to fend for herself, with limited options. This is unacceptable,” Ward said.
‘Consider the source’
When Shapiro first took questions about Vereb’s resignation more than a week after it was announced he noted the female leadership in his administration and said they work every day to ensure a healthy, safe and professional working environment for all employees.
Asked about Ward’s remarks, Shapiro told reporters to “consider the source,” and reiterated that the administration has an independent process to ensure employees feel comfortable coming forward.
Major said Shapiro’s remark about Ward was flippant and that he was dismissing valid concerns as partisan politics.
“If you read the complaint, and I know from speaking to her personally when she was going through this, she went through the procedure, she went through the proper channels to escalate this up the chain of command and ultimately had to resign her job because she didn’t feel safe,” Major said.
Bonder said that when Shapiro made the “consider the source” remark, he was referring to Ward’s record of refusing to allow a vote on legislation to give victims of childhood sexual abuse a window in which to seek legal compensation from their abusers.
“The governor finds that unacceptable, and as soon as the Senator decides to allow a vote on the bill, he will proudly sign it to deliver justice and accountability to survivors all across Pennsylvania,” Bonder said.
Policy changes needed
Major has been a vocal proponent of stronger ethics policies and greater anti-discrimination and harassment protection in state government. In March, Major said state Rep. Mike Zabel (D-Delaware), who was already facing calls to resign, had followed her to her car after propositioning her in a Harrisburg bar.
She was unable to report the incident to the House Ethics Committee, Major said, because it happened after the official end of the 2021-22 legislative session and the committee had been dissolved. She came forward after a lobbyist described Zabel touching her inappropriately, although she didn’t identify Zabel by name at the time. Zabel resigned on March 8.
Major said that although what she called a “frat party” culture in Harrisburg has improved in the decade and a half she has been involved in state government, Pennsylvania needs to improve protections for victims of discrimination and harassment and ensure perpetrators are stopped while ensuring they receive due process.
“I would like to figure out a way for us to come up with an independent way to do these investigations,” Major said. “It’s not just a problem in the administration, it’s a problem in the House and Senate. We’re investigating ourselves. We need an outside organization to do the investigation.”
Sen. Tracy Pennycuick (R-Montgomery) said she would like to see the Legislature examine the process by which the administration investigates complaints such as the one against Vereb.
She also said that a review of discrimination and harassment policies should explore how to make the process more transparent while protecting the due process rights and anonymity of those involved.
“There has to be a way that we notify people that there was a situation, there was an investigation and this is what we found,” Pennycuick said.
While there are no formal plans in place, Pennycuick said, “I know we all plan to sit down this coming session week and discuss next steps as a caucus.”
(This article was updated on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023, to correctly state that Vereb’s accuser confided with Major in March.)
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