Two state representatives accused Speaker Robert A. DeLeo on Thursday of cloaking years of impropriety in the House through carefully worded nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements tied to severance payouts. It was an extraordinary allegation and a brazen act of public defiance by two Democrats against the Legislature’s most powerful official.
Representative Diana DiZoglio, elected in 2012, and Representative Angelo M. Scaccia, the House’s longest-serving representative, made the charge on the House floor during a tense debate over an update to the House’s sexual harassment policies.
DeLeo said that since Jan. 1, 2010, 33 outgoing employees of the House “were offered a small severance payment in exchange for executing a written agreement.” He said none of the agreements were to settle complaints of sexual harassment.
But DiZoglio insisted that was misleading.
“I’m deeply disappointed,” DiZoglio charged from the House floor, “that it’s been said that these [sexual harassment] agreements don’t exist. It’s clearly not true. But the technical reason why that’s allowed to be said is because those responsible for requiring these NDAs in the past have been very careful in choosing not to document within the language of these agreements why certain employees have had to sign them. The process has been broken for a really long time.”
She later added, “These silencing tactics have no place in this House. They cover up misdeeds by politicians and others and they empower perpetrators to move from one victim to the next.”
Scaccia, who has long had a fractious relationship with DeLeo, wondered aloud how much public money had been spent “to silence 33 people.”
Addressing DeLeo, Scaccia said, “Mr. Speaker, there is a great song by Simon & Garfunkel. And it’s called ‘The Sound of Silence.’ And that’s what’s been happening in this chamber for too long.”
Scaccia, a Vietnam War veteran first elected in 1972, called on Attorney General Maura Healey to investigate the House’s use of the nondisclosure agreements, saying the House should “let her find out what happened in the past.” Healey’s office declined to comment.
In a statement, DeLeo disputed DiZoglio and Scaccia’s charge.
“The comments of the two representatives that agreements were used by the House to cover up wrongdoing are based on irresponsible speculation,” he said. “The fact that the House today enacted a provision that waives any non-disclosure or non-disparagement provision of any agreement executed prior to today directly refutes their irresponsible speculation. The rule adopted today specifically waives any non-disclosure or non-disparagement provision of any existing agreement and allows any current or former member, officer or employee of the House to report or discuss a claim of sexual harassment or retaliation based on sexual harassment.”
The speaker also dismissed the need for Healey’s office to step in, saying the House had previously consulted with her office.
The accusations came in the midst of a debate about an order updating the chamber’s human resources policies and creating a new office to investigate accusations of misconduct against elected officials and staffers.
The policy recommendations, which the House largely adopted Thursday, were the result of a monthslong investigation by the House’s top lawyer aided by outside attorneys.
The final report, released earlier this month, stated that an “external audit confirmed that since at least January 1, 2010, the House has not executed any agreement to settle an allegation of sexual harassment. The external audit found no indication that the House’s limited use of termination and severance or separation agreements were intended to cover up misconduct.”
The House passed an amendment, based largely on language proposed by DeLeo, that waived any previous nondisclosure agreements. But it kept open the possibility of others in the future, under certain conditions such as limiting them to a “finite period of time” agreed to by both sides.
DiZoglio, in remarks on the floor, pushed members to adopt stronger language in her own amendment, which would have barred nondisclosure clauses in any agreement going forward. It was defeated, 131-21.
DiZoglio told her colleagues the history behind what she described as her own nondisclosure agreement, an episode she had described earlier in the week to the Globe.
After DiZoglio, then a legislative aide, and a legislator entered an empty House chamber during a late-night party in the speaker’s office in April 2011, rumors began circulating that they had engaged in inappropriate behavior, sparking a House investigation.
DiZoglio told the Globe this week that in the wake of that incident, her workplace became a hostile environment, with people in the State House gossiping about her sex life, calling her names behind her back, and even propositioning her. She said the hostility continued even after a House inquiry found that she and the legislator had not behaved inappropriately and had not broken any rules.
Though he was warned not to do so by the speaker’s office, her boss, then-representative Paul Adams, terminated DiZoglio. DiZoglio told the Globe that she informed the speaker’s office about the harassment and hostility and asked his office for help in finding temporary work, though DeLeo disputes the claim that she ever told him or his staff she was being harassed at the time — despite DiZoglio meeting three times with his staff.
As DiZoglio told her story on the floor, she was repeatedly interrupted by Representative Patricia A. Haddad, a top DeLeo lieutenant who was leading the proceedings. However, DiZoglio persisted.
“These are public tax dollars that are being used to silence people because they might be critical of public elected officials in this chamber,” she said. “We should not be in the business of silencing our critics, or covering up any harassing or discriminatory behavior.”
Later, DiZoglio engaged in a heated back-and-forth with state Representative Marjorie C. Decker, who applauded her courage while opposing her push to ban all nondisclosure agreements. All the while, state representatives furiously texted, and at one point a male voice could be heard whispering, “Jesus!”
DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, has served as speaker since January 2009, and the House got rid of an eight-year term limit on the position in 2015 at his behest. He tightly controls the chamber and public dissent is rare.
Scaccia, during his own floor speech, chided DeLeo for not being in the chamber.
“Mr. Speaker, where are you?” Scaccia said. “Come out. Come out of your office.”
After the session, Scaccia told the Globe he spoke out, in part, because he took umbrage with the conduct of Haddad and other lawmakers who spoke out against DiZoglio’s amendment on the floor.
“I thought they mistreated her. They cut her off at every avenue,” Scaccia said.
In arguing against DiZoglio’s amendment, state Representative Sarah K. Peake, a Provincetown Democrat, noted the date.
“We sit here on the 15th of March,” she paused for a moment. “The Ides of March,” Peake added, referring to the day on the Roman calendar for settling debts — as well as the day when a powerful leader, Julius Caesar, was betrayed by those closest to him.