Capitol

Sexual misconduct allegations against Pennsylvania lawmakers show, yet again, the need for serious and substantive reform. 

THE ISSUE

Two state lawmakers — Democratic Sen. Daylin Leach of Montgomery County and Republican Rep. Brian Ellis of Butler County — have been accused of sexual misconduct and are being urged to step down by members of their respective parties. In 2017, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Pennsylvania House Democrats had used taxpayer money to settle an expensive sexual harassment claim against Rep. Thomas Caltagirone of Berks County. And last year, The Caucus — an LNP Media Group watchdog publication — and the Inquirer reported that state Rep. Nick Miccarelli was the subject of physical and sexual abuse allegations made by a female lawmaker and a political consultant.

There’s something rotten in the state General Assembly.

And it reeks of entitlement.

Some lawmakers apparently feel entitled to harass and assault women in their orbit. And those same lawmakers feel entitled to remain in office even after being credibly accused.

Consider Rep. Caltagirone. An astonishing $248,000 in taxpayer money was paid out to settle a 2015 sexual harassment complaint against him. Yet he remains the Legislature’s longest-serving member.

Consider former Rep. Miccarelli, who remained in office even after a judge granted Republican state Rep. Tarah Toohil’s request for a three-year restraining order against him. Miccarelli did not admit wrongdoing in the negotiated protection from abuse order, and declined to run for re-election in November. But he was determined to finish his term, and he did.

Now what to do about Sen. Leach and Rep. Ellis? The former is a Democrat, the latter a Republican; Leach is from the eastern part of the state, Ellis is from western Pennsylvania — an illustration, we think, that sexual misconduct is a sadly bipartisan matter that’s not confined by region or demographic.

The allegations against both are deeply disturbing.

Allegations against Ellis

As The Caucus and the Inquirer were the first to report last Thursday, the Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office has opened a criminal investigation into allegations that Ellis sexually assaulted a woman while she was incapacitated.

Jennifer Storm, the state’s head victims advocate, told The Caucus and the Inquirer that the woman believes she was drugged while at a Harrisburg restaurant and bar in late October 2015.

“She had one-and-a-half drinks, and then lost 12 hours of her life,” said Storm, who is working with the woman, a state employee who does not work for Ellis. “She was not voluntarily intoxicated in any shape or form.”

The woman told police she woke up the next morning at Ellis’ residence, and the lawmaker told her they had had sex. (An important note: It is impossible to have “sex” with someone who is incapacitated. If someone is unable to give consent, that’s sexual assault.)

Storm told The Caucus and the Inquirer that “the day after the alleged assault, the woman went to the hospital, where she reported to staff that she had no memory of the previous evening and that she believed she had been sexually assaulted.”

The woman said she had rebuffed multiple advances from Ellis before this alleged incident.

House Republican leaders initially responded to The Caucus and Inquirer report by saying they wouldn’t call for Ellis’ resignation unless charges were filed (even as they claimed they had “zero tolerance” for sexual assault and harassment).

But they changed course Friday, suspending Ellis from chairing the House Consumer Affairs Committee, and urging him to resign “to take care of his family and address the allegations.”

Allegations against Leach

Sen. Leach is accused of coercing a 17-year-old into performing oral sex on him in 1991, when he was her mother’s attorney in a criminal case.

Leach responded Monday by suing the woman and two #MeToo activists for defamation. The lawsuit calls the sexual assault claim “a salacious and despicable falsehood,” and alleges that the women have exploited the #MeToo movement “for their own malicious purposes.”

According to the Inquirer and the Post-Gazette, Marni Jo Snyder, a Philadelphia attorney acting as spokesperson for the three women, called the lawsuit an “attempt to silence these women and an attack on free speech.”

Pennlive.com reported last week that Senate Democrats have hired outside counsel to investigate the sexual assault allegation against Leach.

Additionally, in 2017, the Inquirer and Daily News reported that Leach allegedly had a pattern of inappropriate touching and sexual conversations with female campaign staffers.

Eight women and three men recounted to those newspapers “instances when Leach either put his hands on women or steered conversations with young, female subordinates into sexual territory, leaving them feeling upset and powerless to stop the behavior.”

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf called for Leach’s resignation in 2017, and his spokesman said Wednesday that the governor’s position “has never changed.”

We called for his resignation then, too (and our stance hasn’t wavered, either). We were appalled not just by the allegations but by his boorish impulse to blame his political opponents and to cast his disturbing remarks as jokes.

Reform needed

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, said in a statement Tuesday that it “is past time for Sen. Leach to step down.”

He said Leach has "no business serving in the Senate, much less serving on the Judiciary Committee," where he can weigh in on issues such as statutes of limitations in sexual abuse cases.

DePasquale called Leach’s filing of a defamation suit against his accuser “disgusting.” And he called for Rep. Ellis to step down, too.

In a statement issued Monday, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape pointed out that criminal charges shouldn’t be the bar that must be met before the Legislature acts on claims of sexual harassment and assault by any of its members.

Whether charges have been filed has no bearing on whether something has happened — “only whether a prosecutor feels there is enough evidence to bring the case to trial and convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt,” the coalition said, noting that criminal charges are especially rare in cases of delaying reporting, and delayed reporting is normal in cases of sexual assault.

To that, we’d add: While in court, you’re innocent until proven guilty; a legal judgment isn’t necessary to deem a lawmaker unworthy of his office. Elective office is a privilege, not a right, and no lawmaker — not Ellis, not Leach, no one — is entitled to it.

The coalition called on leaders in the House and Senate to set a “new standard ... that clearly demonstrates that sexual harassment, abuse and assault will not be tolerated.”

It is past time, the coalition said, for legislative leaders to “put partisan politics aside and pass a package of bills that will offer greater sexual harassment protections and accountability in state government.”

We strongly agree.

#MeToo legislation championed by Democratic Rep. Leanne Krueger of Delaware County failed to pass last year (one measure would have prohibited the use of taxpayer money for sexual harassment settlements — something we’d heartily endorse).

How much more evidence do we need that such reform is imperative?

24-hour sexual assault hotline: 717-392-7273