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Pa. Senate security force convulsed by harassment complaints, lawsuits

Turmoil stemming from harassment complaints engulfs the Pennsylvania Senate security force.

Pennsylvania State Capitol.
Pennsylvania State Capitol.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / File Photograph

HARRISBURG — Over the last year, the state-funded security force that watches over the Pennsylvania Senate has been hit with a string of firings, employment complaints, and lawsuits alleging a culture of harassment and discrimination, court documents and Senate records show.

The complaints include federal lawsuits by two female employees who contend that they were subjected to sexual harassment, including lewd text messages and comments by the onetime head of security. Senate officials, the women alleged, failed to swiftly stop the behavior.

Another onetime Senate security employee who was fired earlier this year filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, alleging that he was unjustly dismissed  in retaliation for questioning the actions of his superiors.

The wave of employment-related problems has created an undercurrent of mistrust among the 16-member force, whose job it is to help protect senators and guard Senate property, according to interviews with multiple former and current Senate employees familiar with the matter.

Senate Secretary Megan Martin, who oversees the force, referred requests for comment to the Harrisburg law firm of McNees Wallace & Nurick, which has contracted with the Senate to investigate employee complaints and represents the Senate in employment disputes.

In an interview last week, Adam Santucci, a McNees Wallace lawyer, downplayed questions about turmoil in the ranks. He said that a new security chief was brought in earlier this year, and that it can take time for some to adjust to that.

"I think there are some growing pains that come oftentimes with new leadership and new direction," Santucci said. "And it's my belief that the majority of Senate security officers and employees are engaged and excited for the new direction. That certainly doesn't mean everyone feels that way."

The security force's troubles go back to late 2017, when the two female employees filed internal complaints alleging the onetime head of Senate security, Justin Ferrante, sexually harassed them. The Senate hired McNees Wallace to investigate the allegations. Ferrante resigned while that investigation was ongoing.

One of the female employees, Sue Salov, who is the assistant director of security, alleged that Ferrante texted her inappropriate graphics and cartoons, as well as a picture of male genitalia, according to court records and other documents.

The other female employee, Keah Tingler, was a veteran Senate security receptionist and alleged that Ferrante had on multiple occasions sent her photos of feces after visiting the bathroom during work hours. In September, Salov sued Ferrante, the Senate, and the state in federal court, alleging harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. The Senate, in court documents, has denied the allegations.

Tingler also sued the Senate and the state, as well as Ferrante, this past summer, claiming sexual harassment and discrimination. Tingler worked for Senate security until late 2016, when she was suddenly transferred to another department under Martin's supervision.

Tingler alleges in her lawsuit that the Senate knowingly permitted and encouraged a "pervasive and ongoing pattern of sexual harassment." Senate officials have denied her allegations.

Salov and her lawyer, Wayne Ely, declined comment. Tingler, in an interview, said the stress of the last few years caused a nervous breakdown.

"Security was my life," said Tingler, who retired on disability last month from the Senate. "I tried to hold on to that with all I could."

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III is assigned to both cases. McNees Wallace is defending the Senate. The law firm has been paid almost $40,000 in nearly 18 months to represent the Senate, records show.

Santucci, the McNees Wallace lawyer, said Senate leadership followed its policy on responding to workplace harassment complaints, launching an investigation, interviewing witnesses, and taking appropriate action.

Ferrante, through his lawyer, has also denied wrongdoing.

The Senate is contending not just with the federal court cases. During the summer, onetime Senate security officer Joe Williams was fired after only four months on the job.

In an interview, Williams said he was told he was fired for insubordination. He said he believes he was terminated because he questioned some of the Senate's policies, and because of his friendship with Salov, whom he described as being ostracized by Senate security leadership.

"I think I was asking too many questions," he said.

In granting Williams unemployment-compensation benefits, the state Department of Labor and Industry determined that the Senate had provided insufficient information to back up its claim of insubordination. Last month, Williams filed a complaint with the state Human Relations Commission — one that was denied because the commission said it lacked jurisdiction. He said he plans to sue.

Like Williams, longtime Senate security officer Ryan Holtry was fired last November after 12 years on the job. In a recent interview, he said he was never given a clear explanation about why he was fired.

The Department of Labor and Industry determined that the Senate terminated his employment for allegedly making "offensive comments," but also said that he was "not involved in the incident that caused the separation."

Holtry said he believes he was fired because he was aware of sexual harassment incidents, including a message from a male supervisor to a female subordinate that said: "suck on my balls."

"I was a witness to sexual harassment," Holtry said. "I believe this is why they terminated me."

Holtry, who is unemployed, said he has not pursued a lawsuit. "I can't afford a lawyer," he said.

At least three other Senate security guards have left the force within the last month. The circumstances of their departure could not be determined.

"I am not at liberty to discuss confidential personnel matters," said Martin, who was appointed by Senate president Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Republican from Jefferson County.

Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown who follows Harrisburg politics, said the departures and lawsuits raise "legitimate questions" about the Senate security force.

"If these allegations have merit, it certainly reflects on a broader cultural issue within the Capitol and management within the institution," said Borick. "The best case that can be made for those in charge is they were neglectful of supervision."