Legislature's Records Exemption Shields Data on Misconduct in Massachusetts

Allegations of sexual misconduct have roiled the Massachusetts Legislature in recent months, leading to a shake-up of Senate leadership and heated debate in the House.

Yet the Legislature's longstanding exemption from the state's public records law and frequent use of non-disclosure agreements make fully assessing the scope of the sexual harassment problem on Beacon Hill virtually impossible.

The Associated Press filed public records requests with the House and Senate seeking information and documentation pertaining to several questions, including: the number of sexual harassment complaints lodged against legislators over the past decade and details on any that resulted in discipline; any financial settlements reached with accusers; and the number of incidents kept confidential through non-disclosure agreements.

Any such records that exist were not provided.

"The information you requested is not subject to the public records law," wrote Jennifer Grace Miller, the Senate's legal counsel, in denying AP's request. She cited a section of the law stating that it "shall not apply to the records of the general court," the Legislature's official name.

The House made no formal response to AP's request. Seth Gitell, chief of staff to Democratic Speaker Robert DeLeo, wrote in an email that the House had not paid any money to settle sexual harassment or misconduct complaints during DeLeo's nine years as speaker, but otherwise could not comment on "specific personnel matters."

Massachusetts lawmakers are hardly alone in their silence. The majority of state legislative chambers claim to have no publicly available records of sexual misconduct claims over the past decade, according to an AP analysis.

The upheaval in the Senate began in December when The Boston Globe reported on allegations that Bryon Hefner, the husband of then-Senate President Stan Rosenberg, had sexually harassed or abused several men including some with business before the Legislature.

Rosenberg stepped down as president and is the subject of an ongoing ethics investigation to determine if he violated any Senate rules in connection with the allegations against his now-estranged husband. Hefner was recently indicted on sexual assault and other charges.

DeLeo ordered House counsel to review the chamber's sexual harassment policies after reports of other alleged incidents, including one in which a female lobbyist said an unidentified legislator strongly implied to her that he would vote for a bill in exchange for sex.

The resulting report produced several recommendations, including annual sexual harassment prevention training and strengthening confidentiality protections for accusers who fear retribution from powerful lawmakers. But more controversy arose when the House met to adopt the new policies.

Democratic State Rep. Diana DiZoglio told colleagues that in 2011 she was forced to leave her job as a legislative aide and was pressured into signing a non-disclosure agreement after unfounded rumors that she and a state lawmaker had engaged in inappropriate behavior. DiZoglio called for an end to non-disclosure agreements, but the new rules would only limit their use.

Since 2010, 33 House employees signed non-disclosure agreements before receiving severance payments, according to DeLeo. None, he said, was related to sexual harassment claims.

A study commission is examining the Legislature's continued exemption from the public records law. The Pioneer Institute, a watchdog group, argued in an April 3 letter to the commission that the state constitution demands lawmakers be accountable for their actions.

"Accountability cannot be a reality if the Legislature exercises its authority behind closed doors with its books and records shielded from public oversight," the institute said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us