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Pa. Senate quietly paying legal bills of ex-employee accused of sexual harassment

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati’s office signed off on paying at least $23,355 to cover the legal expenses of former security director Justin Ferrante, who is being sued for harassment, according to documents.

The dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol is visible in Harrisburg.
The dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol is visible in Harrisburg.Read moreAP

HARRISBURG — Republicans who control the state Senate have for months been quietly paying the legal bills of the chamber’s onetime security chief, who resigned in late 2017 amid allegations that he had sexually harassed two female subordinates, including texting them photos of genitals and feces.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati’s office signed off on paying at least $23,355 to cover the legal expenses of former security director Justin Ferrante, who is being sued by the women for harassment, according to documents obtained through a public records request.

The arrangement, described in a letter of engagement marked “confidential,” raises questions about why the Senate is footing the bill for lawyers to defend a former employee whose alleged misconduct did not involve his official duties.

In an interview this week, the Senate’s top lawyer, Drew Crompton, said the decision to cover Ferrante’s legal bills was “a difficult call,” but one ultimately guided by the chamber’s policy on paying for legal services.

Among the factors he and others considered, he said, was that the Senate, along with Ferrante, is also named as a defendant in the women’s lawsuits, and that some of the allegations the two made “are likely not accurate.”

“We wrestled with this for a good period of time," said Crompton, who also serves as Scarnati’s chief of staff, adding that they are reserving the right to “change our minds.”

Jennifer Storm, the state’s victim advocate, bristled when told that the Senate had decided to pay Ferrante’s legal bills before the facts in the case could be adjudicated. She said the case highlighted the need for the legislature to vote on numerous bills to strengthen anti-harassment policies in state government, including provisions to help victims feel safe when reporting harassment. The bills have languished for months.

“I’m a little hard-pressed to understand where the Senate feels obligated to cover legal bills of a former employee when sexual harassment is not part of his official duties,” said Storm, whose office provides services and advocates for victims. “Moreover, it’s a slap in the face of these two women.”

Wayne Ely, the lawyer representing the two women, did not return a call seeking comment. Ferrante has denied “all allegations of wrongdoing or misconduct,” according to a recent legal filing in his case.

The Senate is not footing the legal bill for the women bringing the harassment suits, Sue Salov and Keah Tingler. Salov, the security force’s assistant director, still works for the Senate, and has alleged in her lawsuit that the chamber tolerated and perpetuated a culture that allowed for harassment and discrimination. Tingler retired on disability last fall after she said she suffered a nervous breakdown.

The two women believe their professional lives were derailed after reporting Ferrante’s behavior, according to sources familiar with their cases.

The Senate’s policy doesn’t directly address whether the chamber should use taxpayer money to fund legal bills for current or former employees accused of harassment. Ferrante resigned in December 2017 amid an investigation into the harassment allegations.

The 1½-page policy, last updated in 2008, says former employees can be covered for actions taken “in good faith” and in their “official capacity.” It also says that leaders can approve payments for workers who have information “regarding activities under investigation.”

Crompton said several passages in the policy are relevant to Ferrante’s case, but would not identify them. “The policy is meant to be read in its entirety,” he said.

Records turned over by the Senate show that Crompton signed off last year on paying the York-based CGA Law Firm to represent Ferrante in the lawsuits by the women. Salov and Tingler filed separate lawsuits, and both are wending their way through federal court in Harrisburg.

Last week, Ferrante switched attorneys. He is now represented by the Scranton-based firm of Myers, Brier & Kelly. In a statement, his new attorney, Daniel T. Brier, said the Senate’s decision to pay Ferrante’s legal bills is “entirely appropriate given Mr. Ferrante’s former position and the nature of the claims asserted — which we contend are baseless.”

Both lawsuits name as defendants Ferrante, the Senate, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Senate has separately hired a different law firm, McNees Wallace & Nurick, to represent it. That firm handled the initial investigation, in late 2017, into Salov’s and Tingler’s allegations.

During that investigation, according to sources, Salov told the law firm that Ferrante texted her inappropriate graphics and cartoons, as well as a photo of male genitalia.

He also allegedly once asked her, via text message, whether she wanted to view his genitalia to improve her mood, and during another phone call asked if one of her friends would show him her breasts, the sources said.

Tingler, a longtime Senate security receptionist, told the law firm that Ferrante on multiple occasions had sent her photos of feces after visiting the bathroom during work hours. When he’d return to the office, he sometimes would throw a wet paper towel at her, the sources said.

He also asked whether she would like to touch his testicles as he would prepare his appearance for the Senate’s session, the sources said. Tingler also alleged he sometimes would ask her to roll on the floor.

Crompton said his office takes allegations of workplace harassment seriously and has worked “incredibly hard to be accommodating” in handling such cases. This case, he said, presents a unique set of circumstances.

“I don’t know if it sends a message,” Crompton said of the decision to pay Ferrante’s bills. “I didn’t make this determination, along with others, trying to send a message.”