Grand Jury Advises Legislature To Overhaul Its Sexual Harassment Reporting

Aug 26, 2019

A Dauphin County grand jury has issued a slate of recommendations for the state legislature on how it handles sexual assault and harassment.

Victim advocates say now, they hope it turns into actual reform. 

The grand jury investigation was prompted by allegations that former Butler County GOP Representative Brian Ellis drugged and sexually assaulted a woman — just one in a string of similar reports over the last few years.

Ellis resigned earlier this year at the urging of his caucus leaders.

Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo said while he believes the accuser is credible, there’s little evidence, so he’s not charging Ellis.

“The purpose of the report was to illustrate a larger problem,” he said.

To that end, the grand jury is making 10 recommendations to the legislature — including the creation of a centralized Office of Legislative Responsibility to investigate misconduct.

Shea Rhodes, an attorney who directs Villanova University’s Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, said the current procedures are confusing and inadequate.

“The rules weren’t online, there was no mechanism, it’s not streamlined, it’s one thing for the House one thing for the Senate, one thing for each respective party,” she said.

Bills to implement some of the grand jury recommendations are already circulating at the Capitol.

Senate Republican spokeswoman Jenn Kocher noted that caucus member Lisa Baker, of Luzerne County, recently introduced a bill that would create a Commission on Legislative Conduct that would operate similarly to the office proposed by the grand jury.

Kocher added that “one of the report’s recommendations is more transparency and another is to have better confidentiality.  These two ideas aren’t completely at odds yet that is not an easy needle to thread.”

She said just because harassment issues don’t reach the press doesn’t mean the caucus hasn’t handled them, and that a quiet resolution might mean the “individuals who have filed a claim are satisfied that their complaints were handled appropriately.”

In a statement, House Republican Spokesman Mike Straub also said the caucus is “committed to providing a workplace free from all forms of harassment.”

He noted that members are “disappointed” the grand jury didn’t recognize actions the caucus has already taken to address harassment, including adoption of rules that address expulsion proceedings and creation of an independent ethics commission to investigate allegations against members.

He said members are still willing to do more to empower victims to report abuse by members of the legislature.

Senate Democrats had a similar response—saying they’ve made “many changes” to their harassment-reporting procedures but agree with the grand jury that they “need to do more.”

A spokeswoman added, Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa is co-sponsoring Baker’s bill to create an oversight commission. She said he also supports getting rid of the statute of limitations on sexual assault cases.

Ellis did not testify in the grand jury report. Chardo said the former representative invoked his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.

Myers, Brier & Kelly, the law firm representing Ellis, has said in the past that the accusations against him are false.

In response to the grand jury report, the firm issued a statement saying they had expected the report to yield no charges against Ellis, and that the outcome is “proper and just.”