Prodded by DiZoglio, House debates handling of complaints

Scaccia taunts DeLeo and chamber's 'sound of silence'

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

FRUSTRATION AND ANGER bubbled to the surface in the Massachusetts House on Thursday where one lawmaker’s personal story of harassment led to a testy debate over how employee complaints have been handled in the House and a call from one House Democrat for the attorney general to investigate his own party’s leadership.

The tense drama unfolded as the House was engaged in an emotional debate over the use of non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements in cases of sexual harassment and other workplace disputes. In one of the most animated House sessions in recent memory, one state representative broke what she said was an agreement House leaders compelled her to sign as an aide in the building in order to receive severance, and then the dean of the House called for the attorney general to investigate the use of such agreements under House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Ultimately, the House unanimously adopted a package of new rules (H 4291) recommended by the House counsel and a team of attorneys hired to study the House’s policies around workplace sexual harassment, including a new investigation process for harassment claims and new human resources employees.

Thursday’s eventful session began when Rep. Diana DiZoglio of Methuen took to the House floor and broke what she said was an agreement she signed “under duress” as an aide after discredited rumors about inappropriate behavior caused her boss — former Republican Rep. Paul Adams — to fire her.

“I don’t break this (non-disclosure agreement) to attack or accuse anyone, I’m not asking for more money or threatening a lawsuit, and I will even give the severance money back if asked,” DiZoglio said. “I just want this awful practice to stop.”

DiZoglio, who worked as an aide in the State House before being elected to the House in 2012, said that rumors of inappropriate activity with Rep. Mark Cusack in the House Chamber late one night during a party in 2011 made her work environment hostile. DiZoglio, in the telling of her story, never mentioned Cusack by name. Although an investigation by the speaker’s office found that nothing inappropriate had ocurred, DiZoglio’s boss decided that the rumors and gossip had become too much and he asked her to find another job.

When the speaker’s office could not find her temporary employment, she said she eventually “decided to settle and take the small severance pay” offered to her.

“But on my way out the door I was hit with another surprise, the speaker’s office would not release my six weeks severance pay unless I signed a non-disclosure agreement including a non-disparagement agreement that legally bound me from discussing what had happened and from criticizing any past, present or future elected members of this House,” she said. “I hesitated for days because I did not want to sign this document. With my money running out quickly, however, I didn’t feel I had another option so I signed under duress.”

DeLeo, in a statement, said that he and House officials first learned of the harassment described by DiZoglio on Wednesday, when Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham sought the speaker’s comment on the story as relayed  by DiZoglio. The speaker said DiZoglio was fired by her direct supervisor “despite being instructed to the contrary” and that she was represented by an attorney when a severance agreement was drafted.

“To hear now that she did not want to agree to the terms of the termination and severance agreement is troubling,” DeLeo’s office said in a statement. “Her attorney competently negotiated the agreement on her behalf and we presumed that his client was in agreement with the terms.”

DiZoglio said she has heard that dozens of other House employees have signed similar agreements since 2009, when DeLeo became House speaker.

The speaker’s office confirmed that 33 House employees who had their employment terminated “were offered a small severance payment in exchange for executing a written agreement.” The speaker’s office said the House “has not paid any money to settle a complaint of sexual harassment/misconduct brought against or by any member, officer, employee, or third party” since DeLeo was chosen by the other representatives as speaker.

The longest-serving member of the House, Rep. Angelo Scaccia of Boston, then criticized DeLeo for his use of -disclosure agreements and called for more transparency in the House around the use of the agreements and where the severance payment money comes from.

“I am concerned that this is the first speaker in my life that has used this vehicle. I talked to three former speakers and they never used this vehicle,” Scaccia said, referring to non-disclosure agreements. He continued, “But this speaker has used this, and I don’t know the total facts, around 33 times. And if he has used this vehicle, how much money, public monies, has he spent to silence 33 people?”

In his remarks on the floor, Scaccia, a Democrat who has tangled with DeLeo previously, repeatedly taunted DeLeo to leave his office and preside over the House during Thursday’s debate.

“Mr. Speaker, where are you? Come out. Come out of your office and chair,” he said. Each taunt was gaveled out of order by Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad, who was presiding.

“Mr. Speaker, you’ve been getting away for too long in this House with the sound of silence,” Scaccia said, weaving the famous Simon and Garfunkel song into his remarks. “This House should call up the attorney general of this commonwealth and let her find out, and let her find out what happened in the past to bring about the present.”

Scaccia added, “silence dictates this chamber” and called Thursday’s session “an absolute charade.”

In a statement, DeLeo said his office already met with the attorney general’s office as it reviewed its entire human resources function. He said that review found deficiencies the House sought to address with the overall rules package it adopted Thursday, but did not reveal the need for a more comprehensive review.

“The comments of the two representatives that agreements were used by the House to cover up wrongdoing are based on irresponsible speculation. The fact that the House today enacted a provision that waives any non-disclosure or non-disparagement provision of any agreement executed prior to today directly refutes their irresponsible speculation,” DeLeo said in a statement released from his office after the vote.

He continued, “As part of that review, counsel met with the Attorney General’s office to discuss best practices. The review did not identify any reason to notify the Attorney General, much less require the Attorney General to conduct a review, nor did anyone raise a reason to do so today.”

Scaccia also took exception to the way in which DeLeo and his leadership team ran Thursday’s session. The House last Friday, during a sleepy informal session, adopted special rules for consideration of the workplace harassment rules bundle on Thursday, which allowed House leaders to lump several amendments into one consolidated amendment.

Scaccia suggested that House leaders, knowing that DiZoglio would take the floor and press for an amendment that would have barred the House from using non-disclosure agreements in any severance agreement, used the consolidated amendment process to “limit the debate.” He also chastised House leaders for the way in which they used parliamentary procedure to attempt to limit DiZoglio from sharing her full story by interrupting her speech to tell her that her remarks must stick to the amendment under consideration and then opting, at times, not to recognize her as she sought to speak more than once. DiZoglio was allowed to speak on several occasions.

“I wish you had given that young lady a chance to express her whole feelings on this issue without interruption,” he said. He added, “It is very difficult for a young lady who had to experience what happened to her many years ago to be onslaughted by a plethora of reps in this chamber.”

The House voted down DiZoglio’s amendment, which would have prohibited the use of non-disclosure agreements  in any situation, by a vote of 21-131, but unanimously approved an amendment put together by House leadership to curtail the use of non-disclosure agreements in sexual harassment cases, requiring them to be of finite length. Rep. Marjorie Decker said the rules package also restricted the use of non-disclosure agreements to situations of sexual harassment and only if the victim requests to enter into one.

Rep. Sarah Peake defended the preservation of non-disclosure agreements, under certain circumstances. “We cannot through a crystal ball, the best intentions, mental telepathy or any other way, presume to know what’s in the best interest of aggrieved parties moving forward,” Peake said.

A version of an amendment offered by Repubican Rep. Geoff Diehl was also adopted calling for the speaker and minority leader to appoint a special committee to determine if a member should be personally responsible for paying part or all of any settlement reached with a House employee or member.

The overarching package of rules changes was adopted by a 151-0 vote.

The House’s chief lawyer James Kennedy developed the new House rules, which establish a new structure for reporting, investigating, and adjudicating complaints. The review Kennedy conducted alongside outside lawyers, including former attorney general Martha Coakley, recommended the hiring of a new “equal employment opportunity officer,” to whom all harassment complaints would be referred for investigation, as well as moving the human resources office out of the State House’s isolated sub-basement.

The House also Thursday adopted an order recommended by Kennedy to begin the process of conducting a multi-year, confidential survey of the workplace climate within the House of Representatives.

Meet the Author
The survey is intended to “gather information on the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment or otherwise inappropriate conduct in the workplace, to estimate the degree of knowledge persons have regarding the House policy prohibiting harassment, to identify the options for, and barriers to, reporting such conduct” among other priorities.

Men make up a majority of House lawmakers. Women currently hold 39 seats in the House, representing about a quarter of the 160-member body. About 55 percent of the House’s 480 non-elected employees are women, and about 56 percent are under the age of 35, according to Kennedy’s review.