Amid the fractious floor debate this month over its sexual harassment policies, the House of Representatives passed a measure waiving any previous nondisclosure agreements — effectively releasing former employees from their pact with the chamber to keep silent.
That doesn’t mean the House itself is prepared to divulge details.
The top attorney for the chamber — which enjoys an exemption from public records law — is refusing a Globe request for copies of any of the 33 written agreements that House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said have been signed since 2010.
DeLeo has repeatedly said the House has not executed any agreement to settle an allegation of sexual harassment in that time. And his office has said that the total number he’s disclosed includes 15 agreements the House signed with employees who were laid off more than eight years ago.
Details beyond that have been hazy. State Representative Diana DiZoglio has said, and DeLeo confirmed, that she signed one in 2011 when she was a departing aide. But the Methuen Democrat has charged that House attorneys have been “very careful in choosing not to document within the language of these agreements why certain employees have had to sign them.”
She also described them “silencing tactics” used to “cover up misdeeds.”
DeLeo has denied that. The Winthrop Democrat pointed specifically to language he authored, and the House passed March 15, waiving all past nondisclosure agreements as evidence that the charge was “irresponsible speculation.”
That brings us to the agreements themselves. DeLeo has called their use “part of doing business,” and he’s defended the House’s decision to not ban them outright, saying it gives victims an avenue of confidentiality.
In denying copies of the severance agreements and any accompanying nondisclosure clauses, House counsel James C. Kennedy pointed to the legislature’s blanket records law exemption in a succinct email to the Globe.
“Therefore,” he wrote in the two-sentence response, “your request is denied.”
To government watchdogs, the refusal to release the documents — and the underlying reason — are compounding problems.
“The state’s constitution makes it clear that members of the legislature should be accountable to the public ‘at all times’ when under the Golden Dome,” said Mary Z. Connaughton, the director of government transparency at the right-leaning Pioneer Institute.
“Yet, they hide behind a dubious public records law exemption that they themselves crafted. Ultimately, not making the agreements available leads to two harmful outcomes – voters cannot make informed decisions at the polls and perpetrators may be able to re-offend with impunity.”
Connaughton said in absence of the tangible language, the public is left to wonder. She doesn’t expect lawmakers to get the benefit of the doubt.
“The public,” she said, “will assume the worst.”