HARLEYSVILLE — State Sen.Tracy Pennycuick is not happy.
The Republican legislator representing parts of Berks and Montgomery counties in the 24th senatorial district says she has serious concerns about the actions taken in the aftermath of sexual harassment allegations against one of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s senior advisers.
Shapiro’s meeting this week with women in the state Senate, which was limited to the eight Democrats who serve, further raised Pennycuick’s ire. The governor reacted publicly to the controversy for the first time on Thursday, but those remarks also did not land well.
The issue began a week ago with the resignation of top Shapiro aide Mike Vereb and the revelation that a sex harassment complaint was filed against him six months earlier.
Vereb, a former Republican state legislator from West Norriton, served as Shapiro’s secretary of legislative affairs. He resigned from his post Sept. 27, after a complaint six months ago to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission alleging misconduct by Vereb that included lewd, misogynistic and unwanted sexual advances toward a female staffer.
The staffer, whose name is being withheld in press reports, had started work in the governor’s administration in January and quit her job in March.
Pennycuick expressed her frustration in an interview Friday, days after issuing a statement to media.
“I think what prompted me to put it out is the fact that it’s 2023, and this [expletive] is continuing in this day and time, at such a high level of government, and the disparity between when this accuser left and made the accusations against Mike Vereb until he resigned is just very, very alarming,” Pennycuick said.
‘Lack of leadership’
Asked about the situation by a reporter Thursday in a Bethlehem press conference, Shapiro pledged that employees working in his administration deserve a “healthy, safe, professional work environment.” He cited a “personnel matter” in declining comment on the allegations against Vereb.
“I recognize that this is a ‘personnel’ issue, but is it really?” Pennycuick said. “No. I don’t think it’s a personnel issue at all. I think it’s a lack of leadership. The governor left someone in place that made women on his staff uncomfortable, demeaned.
“It’s just mind boggling to me for a man who stood up to everyone and investigated the Catholic church and abuse by priests — all of a sudden, he’s harboring a sexual predator in his office … I have to only assume he knew,” she continued. “Since both investigative offices that would have investigated [the staffer’s] allegations are in the executive branch, I don’t know how he could not have known.”
“We have gone past the ‘Me Too’ movement,” Pennycuick continued. “The fact that this would even be allowed after one comment. One comment should have been all it took to say ‘you’re wildly out of place, this needs to stop,’ and actions should be taken then.
“She wasn’t removed from his office when she made comments to Shapiro’s staff about his behavior. She was left vulnerable,” Pennycuick said. “So that’s how we’re going to treat someone who’s been harassed? Are we going to leave them in their position and let the abuse continue? It’s sick.”
Women in the senate
Shapiro held a meeting on Wednesday with the state’s eight Democratic female senators. Among those attending were state Senators Amanda Cappelletti, D-17th Dist.; Maria Collett, D-12th Dist., and Katie Muth, D-44th Dist.
Muth had initially requested a one-on-one meeting with Shapiro, according to Jeffrey Cavanaugh, Muth’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, but it evolved into a group meeting.
The invitation was not extended to the female elected officials from across the aisle, according to Pennycuick.
“In my opinion that meeting, they were circling the wagons,” Pennycuick said, adding “they were getting everyone on the same sheet of music to make this little problem with Mike Vereb go away, and not damage Gov. Shapiro’s image or his record. They were getting everybody in line.”
She’d initially heard about Wednesday’s closed door meeting from her Democratic colleagues, who were “very open about it. They told us they were going to see the governor on it.” Pennycuick said she would have attended, if invited.
Shapiro urged to do more
“I would really like the governor to come clean and be honest with the taxpayers of Pennsylvania,” Pennycuick said, calling for a public accounting of the situation and what procedures were taken.
“I think he owes that to everyone, and the fact that he only brought in Democratic senators, so that to me says a lot. He’s trying to protect his name and his position,” Pennycuick said.
“If he truly wanted transparency, he would have brought in every female from the Senate and the House, and said, ‘Look, I made a mistake, this guy was inappropriate. I thought he could rehabilitate himself. I gave him a second chance and he did not take it. He continued his bad behavior.’ But that didn’t happen,” Pennycuick said.
“So now it looks like a cover-up,” she continued. “Now it looks like he’s trying to get this situation to go away, and he’s issued conflicting statements, and … for me, it all came to a head when he invited only the Democratic senators for a meeting.”
Inside the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the Senate is composed of 50 legislators, 33 male senators and 17 female senators. Of those, nine are Republicans and eight are Democrats.
“For women in the Senate, and the House … we’ve worked very hard to get where we are, and especially in the Senate, there’s a sense of support among the women, and to have kind of the slap in the face that OK, we’re all going to support the governor, and basically cover up for Mike Vereb. It’s disgusting. It’s appalling,” she said. “We should be better than that.”
“I’ve heard from people in my area that are concerned. The optics are not good,” she said. “Why is it she left in March and Vereb continued to stay in his post? While he was in his post, did he harass anyone else?”
Pennycuick said she has more questions that have not yet been answered as developments surrounding the incident unfold.
“Well there’s a lot of confusion, and the confusion is how many victims were there? We actually believe there’s more than this one victim, and were the other potential victims, were they forced to sign non-disclosure agreements and given a cash payout?” she said. “If that’s the case, every taxpayer in the state of Pennsylvania should be aware that their tax dollars could have potentially been used to squelch a victim of sexual harassment.”
PennLive Reporter Jan Murphy contributed to this report.
Source: Berkshire mont