The Massachusetts House this week overwhelmingly declined to adopt a full ban on the use of nondisclosure agreements by its members in sexual harassment cases — again. In stark contrast, the state Senate voted to eliminate their use altogether.
In rejecting a sensible, basic measure, the House further entrenched a culture of secrecy that has no place in government.
House rules currently allow the use of so-called NDAs only if victims of sexual harassment request them. Typically they are signed as part of a settlement to prevent the parties involved in an incident from discussing it publicly.
Last year, House Speaker Robert DeLeo defended NDAs as “part of doing business.” Except the Legislature is not a “business” — it’s there in service to voters, and legislators answer to the people, not to a corporate board of directors. Unlike in the business world, extra considerations weigh heavily against secrecy in public office: Constituents ought to know if their representative was involved with a sexual harassment suit.
On Thursday, newly elected state Senator Diana DiZoglio had strong words to say on the Senate floor as a former victim of sexual harassment in the State House. “We are not, nor will we be in the future, in the business of silencing victims or covering up misdeeds under any circumstances using public funds,” said DiZoglio.
She is right. Meanwhile, House members held an engaged but ill-informed debate while considering the ban. The victim exemption is compelling, but it also has the unintentional effect of protecting the perpetrator and keeping voters in the dark. Plus, as DiZoglio noted, nothing in the Senate’s new rule would prevent a victim of harassment from pursuing an NDA from their abuser separately, without having to involve the State House or taxpayers’ funds.
The Senate moved in the right direction; the House didn’t. DeLeo can fix this if he wants to.