Trahan, Pressley back efforts to change state non-disclosure policy

DiZoglio, Sullivan urge state auditor to tally agreements

TWO STATE LAWMAKERS waging what could be an uphill battle to expose the extent of hush agreements used by state government and put restrictions on the practice throughout Massachusetts received some support Monday from two members of the state’s congressional delegation.

Congresswomen Lori Trahan of Westford and Ayanna Pressley of Boston, both Democrats new to the US House, applauded bipartisan efforts afoot in the state Legislature and said they are working on related policies at the federal level.

In Massachusetts, Sen. Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat, who convinced the Senate to completely ban the use of non-disclosure agreements within the chamber, has joined forces with Rep. Alyson Sullivan, an Abington Republican, to scrutinize and rein in the legal instruments that have gained notoriety in recent years.

“Our government works best when what it does is transparent to those the government serves,” said Sullivan. “This is a non-partisan issue.”

While they can serve legitimate purposes, non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, have been used by alleged serial sexual harassers, including the former casino magnate Steve Wynn, to buy the silence of their accusers.

DiZoglio and Sullivan on Monday called upon Auditor Suzanne Bump to conduct a survey of state government and tally the number of non-disclosure agreements used by every agency, and the amount spent. The lawmakers are not seeking to expose the identities of the parties to such agreements, they said.

While the effort in Massachusetts has bipartisan support, it has created a rift between DiZoglio and Speaker Robert DeLeo. A former aide in the House, DiZoglio said she was pressured into a non-disclosure agreement in 2011 when she faced sexual harassment and the termination of her job.

“Your state elected officials have been using your public tax dollars to pay for their hush agreements, which cover up all sorts of harassment, discrimination, and other abuse,” DiZoglio said.

Sullivan, whose stance has changed since she voted against a proposed ban on NDAs in the House, supports legislation filed by DiZoglio that would ban the use of NDAs that cover sexual harassment in employment contracts, and ban the use of public funds being used as part of a deal to conceal the details of sexual harassment or assault, according to a legislative aide.

DiZoglio’s public beef with DeLeo over the issue could complicate her efforts to pass the bill, and Bump’s office has already fallen behind on its other existing auditing responsibilities.

The auditor’s office is looking at the potential of conducting such an investigation, according to DiZoglio, who said her attempts to learn about the use of NDAs in the governor’s office have been stymied.

Gov. Charlie Baker said later on Monday that in the executive branch there are established channels for people to report harassment, and he believes victims of harassment should have the opportunity to pursue NDAs.

“We would never agree to sign an NDA that didn’t come directly from the victim,” Baker said. “I do believe victims should be allowed to have the opportunity to seek an NDA if they think that’s in their best interests.”

Terry MacCormack, a spokesman for the governor, said, “Settlements, judgements and other payments to current and former employees issued by the Commonwealth are publicly available through CTHRU” – a website maintained by the comptroller.

Earlier this session, a proposal to ban the use of NDAs in the House went down to defeat as only five of the 160 members, including Sullivan, went along with that idea.

At the time, Rep. Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat, contended that NDAs can be “powerful and effective tools for any victim.”

On Monday, Trahan and Pressley back DiZolgio and Sullivan, touting their work with Congresswoman Katherine Clark to ban pre-dispute nondisclosure agreements and make other changes.

“Every worker in the United States deserves a workplace free from harassment and intimidation of all kinds. Over the last several years, countless brave women and men have come forward to call out the painful and all-too-common reality of workplace sexual assault and harassment. NDAs have played a role in sustaining this for too long,” said Trahan. “I applaud Senator DiZoglio and Representative Sullivan’s efforts and leadership on this issue. This is a perfect example of how having more women in government results in forcing these types of important, long overdue conversations. I’m also proud to be working with my colleagues in Washington on a solution to this problem at the federal level. Our workers deserve better.”

Pressley said she is “grateful for the leadership of our State House colleagues tackling the issue of taxpayer dollars funding NDAs that silence and limit the recourse for those impacted.”

Through the use of redaction and other methods it is possible to maintain the confidentiality of victims of sexual harassment without binding them to secrecy about what they went through, according to DiZoglio and Sullivan.

“I believe we can accomplish confidentiality without silencing victims of sexual harassment within the House of Representatives,” Sullivan said at Monday’s press conference.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

DiZoglio and Sullivan said they have heard from multiple people who said they signed NDAs with a government agency and support new restrictions on the use of NDAs. They said no one has approached them who has signed an NDA to express satisfaction with the process.

“They are fearful of coming forward because of retaliation,” said DiZoglio. “They don’t want to have to get up in front of a roomful of people and talk about what happened to them, so they come to people like us and they ask us to please fight for them, and that’s what we’re doing today.”