The House has adopted new rules to address sexual harassment that should be adopted by the Senate as well and strictly enforced. An argumentative, and for the House unusually open, debate last Thursday, however, indicates that this problem has festered for so long, and is so tied in with broader institutional issues, that it may not be easy for the Legislature to heal old wounds and move on to a better place.
Reporting by the Boston Globe, most notably by Yvonne Abraham, exposed a culture on Beacon Hill in which sexual harassment not only took place but had put down deep roots. An investigation by the House legal office found an "imbedded power dynamic" which discourages victims to report harassment out of fear of retaliation, including a loss of employment.
It is an all too familiar workplace scenario, one of many exposed in recent months by the #metoo movement. What is different and encouraging was the quick response by House Speaker Robert DeLeo in coming up with concrete recommendations to address the problem.
Most notably, the speaker called for the creation of an office to investigate accusations against elected officials and staffers that would be headed by a qualified equal employment officer. The office's independence from the House should encourage victims to speak up, and the guarantee that an investigation will be confidential should eliminate concerns about retaliation. Mandatory sexual harassment training will be required of all House members and an anonymous "climate survey" will regularly be conducted to determine if a culture that invites sexual harassment without fear of punishment is being broken.
Before the House signed off on the package of rules Thursday, Representative Diana DiZoglio, a Metheun Democrat, rose to criticize the speaker for agreeing to non-disclosure pacts that she claimed were done to protect sexual harassers. In 2012, Ms. DiZoglio, then an aide to a Republican legislator now no longer in office, was investigated for allegedly inappropriate sexual behavior while on Beacon Hill. She was cleared — the allegations never rose above the level of gossip — but Ms. DiZoglio told the House Thursday that she was fired by her boss and forced to sign a non-disclosure pact by Mr. DeLeo to get a modest severance package.
Ms. Abraham had reported that Ms. DiZoglio would be speaking out on Thursday and Mr. DeLeo remained in his office, perhaps to avoid "mansplaining" a response to the legislator. It was left to others in the leadership team, perhaps most notably Representative Patricia Haddad, to repeatedly interrupt and shout down Ms. DiZoglio. That other women participated in the attempt to silence her didn't make those actions any less deplorable.
Ms. DiZoglio offered no proof that the nondisclosure pacts were all related to sexual harassment, and indeed some could have been reached to protect victims. However, the speaker's case was injured by the behavior of his leadership team Thursday and by his own inconsistency about the non-disclosure pacts. His office first said there were 33 such pacts since 2010, but then said 15 of them came in 2009. The agreements, which have since been waived, were unpopular with many members and Mr. DeLeo has not explained why they were necessary even for employees who were laid off from their jobs, beyond telling reporters "that's what had to be done."
Mr. DeLeo has essentially been speaker-for-life since the House rubber-stamped his bid three years ago to remove term limits for the office of speaker. The Eagle warned editorially that this would cement an autocracy in place and there are indications that it has. Ms. DiZoglio's outspokenness would have doomed her to a basement office and ended any opportunity for committee chairmanships, but on Thursday she announced that she would run for a vacant seat in the state Senate in November.
The speaker certainly deserves credit for the introduction of tough rules addressing sexual harassment and we look forward to seeing how they are implemented. It is impossible to believe, however, that the verbal attacks on Ms. DiZoglio on Thursday were done without his orchestration or at least his approval. It is also revealing that on the rare occasion when the speaker was challenged in a public session of the House it was done by a legislator who had nothing to lose career-wise.
The House definitely suffers from an "imbedded power dynamic," and it goes well beyond the specific issue of sexual harassment.