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Speak no evil: Pa. Senate's security force cloaked in secrecy

Little is known about the roughly 15-member Senate security force that came under scrutiny last week when its director resigned amid an investigation into sexual harassment investigations.

Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday, July 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday, July 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Read moreAP Photo/Matt Rourke

HARRISBURG — They stand guard outside Senate meetings. They keep the peace inside the Senate's ornate chamber on voting days. They check offices of senators after hours, and are supposed to report suspicious activity.

That aside, little is known about the 14-member Senate security force, which has come under scrutiny since its director resigned last month amid an investigation into sexual harassment allegations.

In many ways, the force is ultimately accountable to only one person: Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), who appoints its supervisor. Senate officials have blocked public release of the force's reports and have answered questions only about its most basic functions and responsibilities.

"There are certain basic [security] metrics the public is entitled to know, because the public is paying for it," said Eric Epstein, a Harrisburg-based good-government advocate and coordinator of the voter education group Rock the Capital. "We are not living in a state where you can say, `Just trust me.'"

The force is part of a multilayered security network inside the Capitol. Though the Capitol Police guard and patrol the complex, in Pennsylvania — as in several other states — each chamber of the legislature has its own security force that ensures legislative meetings run smoothly and legislative spaces remain safe.

Unlike the Capitol Police, however, the legislative security guards do not carry guns and do not have arrest powers. According to an official job description, security officer duties include protecting "persons and property from … fire, theft, trespass, harassment and other potential hazards."

Senate security guards are also required to check on offices after hours, and fill out detailed log sheets about any "discrepancies." Depending on what they find, they could fill out a formal security report.

But unlike the Capitol Police, they do not make even basic information on those reports — such as time, place and a brief description of the incident — public.

There are also no written guidelines on when security guards should write detailed reports because of the wide array of incidents they might encounter on the job.

"Our security officers always have to weigh the privacy of members and staff in their offices with the public nature of the offices," Megan Martin, the Senate's secretary and parliamentarian, who oversees the Senate security unit, said in an emailed response to questions.

She added: "There is a degree of privacy the senators and staff are expected to be granted, and our officers try to recognize this degree of privacy. It is a balance between the public aspect of the offices and the private aspect of holding meetings or conferences, taking calls, conducting legislative business, and creating work product in these offices."

Late last year, the Senate denied requests under the state's Right-to-Know law by the Inquirer and Daily News and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to divulge reports filed by Senate security officers during several months of 2017, saying they do not meet the definition of a "legislative record" and therefore are not public.

The Senate's chief clerk, Donetta M. D'Innocenzo, an appointee of Scarnati, first rejected the records request.

An appeal by the newspapers was then denied by a legislative lawyer after Martin, also a Scarnati appointee, recused herself because her office oversees the security force, which costs about $700,000 a year in salaries.

Last week, Martin became the acting director of Senate security after Justin Ferrante resigned under pressure amid an investigation into allegations that he sexually harassed two female subordinates. The Senate hired an outside law firm to investigate the complaints against Ferrante, who has declined to discuss the matter. State records show his salary was $78,542.

The harassment complaints are not public, and a top Senate official has said only that the inquiry is ongoing.

The legislature wrote the Right-to-Know law nearly a decade ago, shielded much of its work from public access. Only very specific records, such as financial documents, legislation, meeting minutes and policy manuals are defined as open records.

Martin, in her response, said security officers — and the subjects of the reports — are the only people who are allowed to view and obtain copies of them. In some instances, including those that involve someone being injured on the job, the reports could be forwarded to D'Innocenzo's office.

Epstein, the Harrisburg-based activist, called that policy "horse hockey."

"It doesn't build confidence," he said.