As the House considers a comprehensive bill to combat sexual harassment Thursday, the experience of one legislator will serve as a reminder of how very much Beacon Hill needs change.
Earlier this week, state Representative Diana DiZoglio of Methuen informed the Globe she was planning to give a speech during the debate on the bill, telling the chamber that the very leaders who are now promising to transform the climate in the House silenced her when she was harassed seven years ago.
It’s a claim House Speaker Robert DeLeo disputes. On Wednesday night, he expressed sympathy for DiZoglio, but said his office was not aware she had been harassed until the Globe informed them earlier in the day.
“We have to reject any assertion that we were aware of it prior to today, or that we sought to silence her and/or to cover up any harassment,” read a statement issued by the speaker on Wednesday night.
DiZoglio hotly contests that, but we’ll get to their dispute later. First, DiZoglio’s story.
Before she was the rep from Methuen, DiZoglio was an aide to a Republican lawmaker from Andover. In April of 2011, she’d been working in the building only a few months when she attended a late-night party with lawmakers in Speaker DeLeo’s office.
At some point, DiZoglio and Representative Mark Cusack of Braintree went into the empty House Chamber, where a State House security officer encountered them and spoke to them. But DiZoglio says — and a subsequent investigation by the House backed her up — that nothing happened between her and Cusack, that the door between the speaker’s office and the chamber was open, and that people were going in and out.
Still, talk immediately began swirling that DiZoglio, then 26, and Cusack, also 26, had been engaging in inappropriate behavior. And DiZoglio was savaged in the gossipy halls of the State House. There was, she says, incessant chatter about her sex life; she was called shameful names behind her back; she was propositioned, brazenly. It continued, she said, even after the investigation found that she had done nothing wrong.
“They did not violate any law, House Rule, or House personnel policy and, most importantly . . . there was no inappropriate behavior by either Rep. Cusack or the staffer involved,” a statement from DeLeo said at the time.
DiZoglio said she understood why people were gossiping, but her boss and others told her not to talk about the alleged incident, so she couldn’t set them straight. That was unbearable for her, she said.
But apparently it was also unbearable for her boss, Paul Adams, who, she said, disapproved of the fact that she had gone to the party at all, and told her she could no longer work for him because the gossip about her was reflecting poorly on his office. Adams did not respond to several messages seeking a response. Cusack declined to comment.
Another legislator, appalled at what was happening to DiZoglio, offered to help find her a way out of the maelstrom.
“The rumors flying throughout the building were disparately focused on this young staffer,” former representative Dan Winslow, of Norfolk, said in an interview. “It really bothered me. She was being treated so unfairly.” The former judge said DiZoglio’s experience was one of the reasons he eventually proposed rewriting the House code of conduct on harassment.
His proposal went nowhere, but the laudable legislation the House is now considering gives people in DiZoglio’s position far clearer options than she had: It will clearly define the treatment she described as sexual harassment; formalize and professionalize the chamber’s human resources department; create a clear route for harassment complaints; and put everybody in the chamber on notice that victims will be respected, and transgressions punished.
In the absence of those clear guidelines, however, DiZoglio was lost. She said she reached out to the speaker’s office, telling his staff that the gossip and harassment had made her work environment hostile. She requested help finding a post in another office. When that didn’t work out, a lawyer helped her negotiate a severance agreement with the speaker’s office that gave her six weeks’ pay. (Her salary then was $30,000, she recalled.)
But the agreement contained a sweeping requirement that she not talk about what happened to her, or say anything critical of anybody who works at or with the House: “The Employee shall not make any false, disparaging, or derogatory statements to any media outlet . . . industry group, financial institution or current or former employee, vendor, consultant, client, of the House regarding the House or any of its members, employees, agents or representatives.”
Employment attorneys say such non-disparagement clauses are common in severance agreements, and that often, employees want them as much as employers do, to protect their privacy. But others have decried their use, particularly in the public sector, because they serve to conceal possible transgressions by elected officials and public employees. There have been moves to limit or do away with them entirely in other states, and in Congress when it comes to sexual harassment cases.
“It is inconsistent with public accountability and transparency,” Winslow said.
DiZoglio balked at the idea that she would never be allowed to set the record straight, to answer the gossip, but said her attorney convinced her she had no choice.
“I recognized even then, I was being asked to give up my right to speak about what had happened,” she said. “I did not want to sign the agreement but, because of my financial situation, felt I had no other choice.”
She signed. And the next year, the Democrat ran for the Legislature and took her own seat in the House chamber, representing the 14th Essex district.
DeLeo said Wednesday that he was “deeply troubled” by DiZoglio’s claims of harassment, but that his office did not know about them at the time. His office dealt with her not over harassment, but on the wrongful termination by Adams, his statement said, noting that Adams had been warned not to discipline DiZoglio but fired her anyway.
“At no time during these negotiations did Representative DiZoglio’s attorney allege the harassment you have detailed today,” DeLeo said.
For her part, DiZoglio says everybody on Beacon Hill knew the things people were saying about her, and that in any case, she had in fact informed the speaker’s staff of the harassment before her lawyer got involved.
On the non-disclosure agreement, DeLeo said that he was “troubled” and surprised to hear DiZoglio did not want to agree to the terms of the severance agreement, since her attorney gave no indication she was reluctant.
As the issue of sexual harassment at the State House burst into view last October, and talk of reform began, DiZoglio said she grew frustrated that she could not discuss her own experiences in the House. She has filed an amendment to the rules overhaul that would ban the use of confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses in any House settlement agreements.
“Those agreements silence the victim against their will and isolate them,” she said. “They also cover up misdeeds.”
The speaker’s office does not consider DiZoglio’s agreement a sexual harassment settlement, and said that none of the 33 settlement agreements the House has signed since January 1, 2010, were made to dispatch harassment claims.
Even so, after the Globe gave him notice on Wednesday of DiZoglio’s intention to speak in the House chamber, the speaker came up with an amendment of his own. It would allow the waiver of confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions in previous agreements that might prevent current and former House personnel from talking about harassment. And it would limit confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions in settlements going forward.
The speaker will get the credit for that innovation, even if it falls short of what DiZoglio is asking for. But make no mistake: it is DiZoglio who will have made it happen.