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Editorial

No room for secret settlements with public dollars

Lawmakers are rightfully seeking to ban nondisclosure agreements that shield sexual harassers and get an audit of past settlements.
Lawmakers are rightfully seeking to ban nondisclosure agreements that shield sexual harassers and get an audit of past settlements.(Elise Amendola/AP)

Sexual harassers should not be able to hide behind binding legal agreements aimed at silencing their victims. The #MeToo era has certainly educated the public on that score. And when it’s taxpayer dollars that fund those agreements, well, the need for transparency — and for reform — is even greater than in the private sector.

That there exists no public accounting of how many so-called nondisclosure agreements have been signed by state officials and legislators in the past five years and how many of them dealt with sexual harassment cases is absurd. That State Auditor Suzanne Bump is not inclined to take on the job of finding out is unfortunate.

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State Senator Diana DiZoglio, Democrat of Methuen, and State Representative Alyson Sullivan, Republican of Abington, are calling for both a ban on the use of nondisclosure agreements in settlements involving taxpayer funds and an audit of how many of these agreements have actually been executed in the past five years.

“Your state elected officials have been using your public tax dollars to pay for their hush agreements, which cover up all sorts of harassment, discrimination, and other abuse,” DiZoglio said at a news conference she and Sullivan held on Monday to push for both their legislation and for action by Bump to scrutinize NDAs at state agencies.

DiZoglio knows first-hand how the system works. Back in 2011, as a young House staffer, she says she was sexually harassed, then improperly terminated and forced to sign an NDA to get severance pay, money she desperately needed at the time. She broke that nondisclosure agreement in 2018 when as a state representative she took to the House floor to demand the House abandon the policy.

Earlier this year, with the issue as contentious as ever, the state Senate eliminated the use of nondisclosure agreements in its own governing rules. The House adopted a rule that allows the use of NDAs if victims of sexual harassment request them.

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But DiZoglio insists now, as she did back then, that the House rule is “filled with loopholes” and the policy is ripe for exploitation by those in positions of power. And on Beacon Hill, let’s face it, there are lots of people who, by virtue of their elected or appointed posts, are indeed in positions of power. Prohibiting NDAs when public funds are involved (victims are still free to demand private side nondisclosure agreements with their harassers) is the best way to attempt to level that playing field.

The two Beacon Hill lawmakers have also won the support of two members of Congress from Massachusetts, Lori Trahan and Ayanna Pressley, who issued a statement in support of the bill.

But a real source of frustration for DiZoglio and Sullivan is their inability even to get information on how much public money has been spent implementing such agreements.

“We know they’re still being used at the State House, but how prevalent are these publicly funded nondisclosure agreements statewide?” DiZoglio asked. “The public has a right to know.”

“Our government works best when what it does is transparent to those the government serves,” Sullivan said.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s office has already acknowledged that 33 nondisclosure agreements have been signed in that branch since 2010. The speaker insists none of those involved claims of sexual harassment. DiZoglio, who signed one of them, begs to differ. And since the House is exempt from the state’s public records law — and from the auditor’s authority as well — we don’t know much more than that.

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Governor Charlie Baker has said the policy in his office is to allow an NDA only at the request of the victim. How does the public know that’s true? Well, because he said so. The governor’s office is also not subject to the public records law.

Then there are state agencies. Bump could help lift that veil of secrecy as it relates to NDAs at state agencies, but insists the task remains “not feasible” for her office. Bump in an interview said, “This is not a good use of our resources. It’s not a topic we would audit.”

It’s true it doesn’t technically take an audit — a public records request of state agencies by the bill’s sponsors would accomplish the same thing. But that’s a task equivalent to looking for a needle in a haystack.

So the public may never know the extent of the problem. But the bill promoted by DiZoglio and Sullivan would at least provide much needed transparency going forward.