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Inside the Pennsylvania taxpayer-supported fund that pays out millions of dollars in settlements

Ford Turner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in News & Features

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The taxpayer-supported pool of money that covered most of the $295,000 sexual harassment settlement involving a former top Shapiro administration official has paid out almost $19 million for 138 claims of various types generated in recent years, state records show.

One multi-million dollar settlement went to the estate of Kevin Siehl, who spent 25 years in state prison and was released by court order after a judge found the murder case against him was mishandled. Another settlement went to the family of 81-year-old Edward Horowitz, one of dozens of military veterans who died at a state-run veterans' home where COVID-19 precautions were botched.

But it was a prolonged lack of public knowledge about sexual harassment allegations that led to a settlement this year that has produced calls for greater transparency around taxpayer-supported payouts.

Mike Vereb, the former Secretary of Legislative Affairs for Gov. Josh Shapiro, resigned without a publicly stated reason on Sept. 27. Not until the following day did the public learn through media reports that Mr. Vereb had been accused by a female employee of sexual harassment. He has not commented publicly on the allegations.

The taxpayer-funded $295,000 settlement in the case included an agreement that prevented parties from talking about it. That led some lawmakers to push for public posting of some details on settlements.

In response to Post-Gazette Right-to-Know requests, the state Department of General Services supplied data on the low-profile self-insurance fund that paid most of the Vereb-related settlement.

 

The records included 138 claims that were wrapped up and got final payments from the fund between Jan. 1 and Nov. 13. The total paid out on those claims was $18.9 million, with 20 of them for $140,000 or more — indicating that even the Vereb-related base settlement of $196,000, excluding $99,000 in attorneys' fees, was large in comparison to many others.

It was not paid until after Nov. 13, according to a state Treasury spokesperson. All but $45,000 of that settlement came from the fund, called the Employee Liability Self-Insurance Program, or ELSIP.

"This sort of information is exactly why we need the bipartisan legislation," Sen. Kristen Phillips-Hill, R-York, said after being told of the DGS data. "This is why the status quo is unacceptable."

Ms. Phillips-Hill plans to introduce a bill that would require all state agencies and the General Assembly to self-report the total number of monetary settlements with non-disclosure agreements tied to sexual harassment or sex discrimination accusations. The reports would be posted in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.

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