HARRISBURG — Republican leaders in the state House of Representatives on Friday called on a Western Pennsylvania lawmaker to resign following allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman who was incapacitated in late 2015.
In a statement, the leaders said they recommended that State Rep. Brian Ellis, a Republican from Butler County, also "take care of his family and address the allegations raised against him that are currently the subject of a criminal investigation by the Dauphin County district attorney.”
They also suspended Ellis from the chairmanship of the Consumer Affairs Committee.
The action was in sharp contrast to their position Thursday, after the Inquirer and Daily News and the Caucus first reported that the Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office had opened an investigation into the matter.
Initially, House GOP leaders, while claiming they had “zero tolerance” on sexual assault or harassment, said they would only call for Ellis’ resignation if he was charged. No charges have been filed.
Ellis, 49, has not responded to multiple phone calls, emails, text messages, and letters over several days seeking comment. Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo declined comment.
Asked about the Republican leadership’s reversal, spokesperson Mike Straub said: “We’ve said zero tolerance, and upon further discussion of the allegations — which we the leaders learned much more details through your and other media reports — the leaders believe it’s in the best interest of Rep. Ellis that he resign in order to fully address the allegations.”
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, also urged Ellis to resign. “The allegations against Rep. Ellis are outrageous and unacceptable,” said spokesperson J.J. Abbott.
In an interview Friday, Jennifer Storm, head of the state’s Office of the Victim Advocate, said the woman believes she was drugged while she at a Harrisburg restaurant in late October 2015 with a friend, because she has no memory of what happened to her after she consumed fewer than two alcoholic drinks.
“She had 1½ drinks, and then lost 12 hours of her life,” said Storm, who is working with the woman, a state employee who does not work for Ellis. “She was not voluntarily intoxicated in any shape or form.”
Storm said the woman was not out with Ellis early in the evening at the restaurant, where she ordered a drink. After that, she said, she has no memory, but has been told she ended up at a different bar, where Ellis was present. The two left the second bar together.
The woman has alleged that the lawmaker told her the next morning that they had sex. Prior to that evening, she has said, Ellis had pursued her and she had made it clear she did not want to be involved with him.
Storm said that the day after the alleged assault, the woman went to a hospital, where she reported to staff that she had no memory of the previous evening and that she believed she had been sexually assaulted.
At the hospital, she was examined and treated for a concussion and pain, said Storm.
Experts said they believe prosecutors will examine the possibility of date rape drugs.
Steve Turner, a longtime lawyer for Pennsylvania state agencies and a former special federal prosecutor, said that without toxicological evidence, a prosecutor would need to build a case with “circumstantial evidence,” including the victim’s testimony about her normal alcohol intake, the effect of a few drinks, and whether she had blacked out before. It would include “her last memory and her first memory,” said Turner.
Essentially, absent other witnesses who might have seen someone tamper with her drink, it comes down to “her story vs. his,” Turner said.
Physical evidence, such as of date rape drugs, would aid the prosecution, said Turner.
Kristen Houser, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said there’s a dearth of data on how often drug-induced rape occurs. Much of it is anecdotal evidence. “There are a lot of people who have memory lapses that are not equal to their other drinking experiences,” she said.