On a bitterly cold night in February 2016, a woman named Emily met State Sen. Daylin Leach at a political fund-raiser in Harrisburg. She was 27, working as a temporary employee for the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Campaign Committee (SDCC). He was a 55-year-old incumbent who chaired the committee.
Leach, a well-known Montgomery County progressive and longtime advocate for women's rights, listened with interest as they talked, Emily said. At one point, she explained that she had once lived in Beirut, Lebanon, and could speak Arabic.
She recalled that during the conversation, Leach held on to her upper arm "for an uncomfortable amount of time," maybe 10 seconds or so. It seemed harmless, but later that evening, she said, an email from Leach arrived in her inbox.
"Hey there," read the subject line. Below was a short passage in Arabic. "How wonderful it was to talk to you today," it began, according to a translation, before making a reference to some petitions.
The following morning, as Emily registered attendees at an SDCC breakfast in the lobby of the Harrisburg Hilton, Leach approached again. She was wearing a skirt and sitting at a table. She said Leach sat next to her, discussed his history of fighting for women, and suggested he might be able to help her find a job.
And then "he grabbed my thigh, almost to punctuate his point with a cruel irony," said Emily, who spoke on the condition of her last name not being used. In the moments that followed, Emily said, she felt "frozen in fear and humiliation. I wrapped up the fund-raiser and went back to my hotel room and sobbed."
Two members of the state Democratic Party confirmed that Emily sent them distraught text messages describing the encounter in the hours after it occurred.
The episode was among the starkest cited by former campaign and legislative staffers and advisers who say Leach, a legislator since 2003, has for years engaged in questionable behavior with young female staffers and volunteers, from highly sexualized jokes and comments to touching they deemed inappropriate. The behavior was all the more jarring, they said, given his reputation as a stalwart defender of women's rights.
Leach, 56, who is now running for Congress, declined to be interviewed for this story and did not respond specifically to written questions from the Inquirer and Daily News. Instead, he provided a lengthy statement in which he blamed the accusations on an unnamed political opponent and denied ever inappropriately touching women. He noted that he sometimes does touch people when he is talking to them and that "some people subjectively find such touching unpleasant."
"Politics is, sadly, an ugly business," Leach wrote, adding: "I will go back to doing what I've always done, being a fierce fighter for women's rights and trying to protect my family from the unfortunate consequences of the profession I've chosen."
Leach, who is married and has children, referred specific questions to Philadelphia lawyer George Bochetto, who in an interview last week added: "He's not a predator. He's not a hound dog. He is a very, very conscientious and decent public official that has not lost his sense of humor, despite his political career."
After being alerted to concerns regarding Leach's behavior, the Inquirer and Daily News interviewed nearly two dozen people about the senator's conduct. Some women described him as a good boss, one who gave them wide latitude to make political and policy decisions in an office where hierarchy and job titles mattered little. They acknowledged he often made sophomoric comments and had a bawdy sense of humor, but said they were not bothered by it.
But eight women and three men recounted instances when Leach either put his hands on women or steered conversations with young, female subordinates into sexual territory, leaving them feeling upset and powerless to stop the behavior.
Aubrey Montgomery, a former finance director for Leach's first campaign for Senate in 2008, said Leach has consistently supported policies that help women.
"But," she said, "as great as his legislative record is for women globally, he can be awful to women individually."
Accusations and a denial
Montgomery, a well-known fund-raiser who has worked for Leach and others, was among the few witnesses to his behavior willing to be publicly identified or quoted. Others spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the nature of their encounters and Leach's position as one of the region's high-profile elected officials.
Among the incidents they described:
• A woman who worked for Senate Democrats in 2015 said Leach inappropriately touched her in a Senate office. At least one eyewitness reported the encounter and a human resources officer for the Senate interviewed the woman.
• On the opening night of the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Leach allegedly made inappropriate sexualized comments to a female intern in the Pennsylvania delegation, according to two delegation officials at the event. They said they were concerned and responded by directing interns to travel in pairs for the remainder of the convention.
• A woman who worked as a fund-raiser for Leach several years ago said he was prone to "inappropriate" touching. "He'd put his arm around me, and his hand would linger on the small of my back, and briefly graze my butt," she said. "As a woman, you get that feeling that this isn't right."
• Two women who worked on Leach's 2008 Senate campaign said he repeatedly discussed sex in front of young female staffers, including references to famous "women I'd like to f—." They said Leach's sexualized comments became so uncomfortable they tried to limit his time around interns and volunteers, and fretted over hiring attractive young women for fear of how he'd behave around them.
None of the women who described seeing or hearing questionable conduct by Leach told the Inquirer and Daily News that they had been assaulted, denied promotions, or had their careers threatened. Each said that he created and promoted a culture in his office that objectified women and that he often framed his comments as harmless jokes.
Leach, in his statement, said he never "intentionally or unintentionally touched" these women inappropriately. "It did not happen." Although in the same statement he said of the two incidents: "I recall one not at all and one only vaguely."
Senate Democratic officials declined to publicly discuss Leach and whether they knew of any complaints against him. Privately, one Senate officer acknowledged that Democratic leaders had fielded a 2015 complaint from a then-23-year-old staffer who said Leach inappropriately put his hands on her.
But the officer, along with others, also argued that other unnamed state legislators have engaged in far worse behavior.
In an interview this month, the former Senate staffer, who spoke on condition that she not be named, said she first met Leach at an after-party for the Pennsylvania Progressive Summit at the Federal Taphouse in Harrisburg in February 2015. At the time, she was working for the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, the fund-raising arm that Leach then-chaired.
The woman said Leach asked her about the work she was doing for the committee, and then slid his hand down her back and "touched my butt." She yelled at Leach, she said, only to be told by one of his top campaign aides that her response was inappropriate.
She said she encountered Leach again a month later, after she'd taken a job with the Senate. This time, she said, he approached her from behind and tickled her torso while she sat at her desk during a budget hearing luncheon in a Senate office, leaving her stunned.
A witness reported the incident to the woman's boss, she said. During a subsequent meeting with a human resources administrator in the Senate, the woman said, she felt as if she had been discouraged from filing a formal written complaint about Leach's conduct. Instead, she was assured that such behavior wouldn't happen again.
"I'm more mad at the Senate for not doing anything," she said of the episode. "It's the culture up there that's the problem."
In a statement, Senate Democratic officials said they could neither acknowledge nor discuss any such incidents, citing confidentiality rules to protect victims of sexual harassment.
Brittany Crampsie, spokeswoman for the Senate Democratic caucus, said that typically, if an employee wants to report an incident, "he or she would go to their supervisor and/or the director of human resources. They would walk the individual through their options, one of which is making a formal complaint with the chief clerk's office. That process involves a review by outside counsel, and then a report to Senate leadership."
A high-ranking Senate Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a party leader did speak to Leach after the woman described their contact, and warned the legislator to watch his behavior. Asked if he had been given any such warning, Leach did not respond.
When a joke goes too far
Throughout his nearly 15 years in public office, Leach has been known as an unflinchingly liberal Democrat who sometimes aims an edgy, often-skewering sense of humor at staffers, fellow legislators, and even himself. President Trump, whom Leach called a "fascist, loofah-faced shit-gibbon" in a tweet that went viral earlier this year, is also a frequent target.
Leach is seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, a Delaware County Republican, as Capitol Hill reels from a wave of sexual-harassment accusations against some prominent male politicians, leading to the recent announced resignations of Sen. Al Franken and Reps. John Conyers and Trent Franks.
Leach's supporters have argued that allegations about his conduct are politically motivated, and aimed at derailing his congressional run. They have taken issue with reporting by the Inquirer and Daily News, noting that the papers have filed Right-to-Know requests for any harassment complaints, as well as the names of current and former staffers.
Earlier this month, Leach's attorney sent reporters a letter demanding that they "cease and desist this fishing expedition." Bochetto elaborated during an interview in his Center City office last week. "You've undertaken a witch hunt," he said. "And I think what you've done is come up with Easter eggs, for the most part."
The women who spoke to the Inquirer and Daily News about Leach said they were all struck by the irony of feeling harassed by a man they believed was their ally.
In his tenure in the Capitol, the senator from Wayne has championed legislation to legalize medical marijuana, ban the shackling of female prisoners, increase the minimum wage, expand access to health care, and extend antidiscrimination protections to Pennsylvania's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. He has also been a fierce and vocal opponent of measures that seek to roll back women's rights, including a recent bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Aubrey Montgomery was 24 when she joined Leach's 2008 Senate campaign. She said she was offended by his sexualized tone in the office. Montgomery said she called him on his comments but felt as if the move backfired.
"When I expressed my discomfort, Daylin suggested I just didn't get the joke, labeled me a prude and characterized me to my colleagues as the campaign's wet blanket," she said. "The more uncomfortable Daylin made me, the more he would dial up the intensity. The more I expressed my discomfort at his sexual and off-color humor, the funnier it was to him."
Montgomery said she continued to support Leach because she backed his policy positions. In recent years, however, she has done compliance work for, and donated money to, Dan Muroff, who is running against Leach in the Democratic primary for Congress.
In his statement, Leach said he found it "a little strange" that Montgomery was offended by his humor. He noted that she had donated to his political campaigns and that she "came back to work for me again" after the 2008 race. Montgomery did political work for Senate Democrats in 2011 but not directly for Leach.
Meanwhile, another woman who worked on Leach's 2008 campaign said he would talk about actresses he wanted to sleep with, and referenced wanting to hire a "full set" of secretaries: a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead — followed by a "bald chick." He also referenced wanting to have his own "Charlie's Angels."
"I don't subscribe to the belief that there is a sliding scale to marginalizing women in the workplace, that there is a gray area," the woman said. "I feel really strongly that we shouldn't have to put up with this stuff. That this is not appropriate in the workplace."
Political campaigns, unlike government, have no human resources departments. They also often have no written policies guiding employee behavior.
The woman who worked as a fund-raiser for Leach and said he had grazed her behind with his hand several times said the senator is "very friendly, which you don't mind. But as an elected official, you know where your hands should be."
She added that she sometimes offered a simple warning to young women who were going to work with Leach: Don't be alone with him in an elevator.
Emily, the temporary SDCC worker who encountered Leach last year in the Harrisburg Hilton, said she was among the women who had been given that exact warning from the fund-raiser.
An imperfect process
The legislature has sexual-harassment policies in place, but the process for reporting such conduct is not clear-cut, and can be fraught with politics.
The Senate, for instance, has a "workplace harassment" policy that generally defines such harassment as "any repeated, deliberate, unwelcome comments, gesture, conduct or physical conduct of any nature."
Employees who believe they have been harassed can make a complaint verbally, but the policy recommends following that up with a written statement that documents the nature, date, and time of the offense.
Violating the policy could lead to suspension, termination, or other sanctions, it says.
Though the policy states that complaints can be filed with an employee's supervisor, or with the Senate's chief clerk or secretary, there is no central clearinghouse. Nor does the policy state how to investigate and resolve them.
Instead, Democratic and Republican leaders in the chamber each select someone to investigate and manage personnel issues.
Depending on the type of complaint and whom it involves, that person could decide to handle it in-house or farm it out to an outside attorney, according to Senate lawyers.
Such protocols – particularly against the backdrop of a national wave of high-profile sexual-harassment allegations — have led a number of Pennsylvania legislators in recent weeks to propose measures to tighten the rules and prohibit confidential payouts and settlements.
Though bills aimed at cracking down on sexual harassment have been introduced, there has been no commitment to moving any quickly to a vote.
A harsher climate
Leach has faced scrutiny in the past over some of his risque comments.
The legislator shuttered the "Leach Vent," a blog he wrote that mixed political satire with amateur sketch-comedy bits that were heavy on not-so-subtle sexual jokes, after the Inquirer wrote about it in 2005.
At the time, he argued his humor wasn't offensive.
He still sometimes resorts to Leach Vent-like comments while weighing in on political matters. In March, Leach tweeted a photo of Vice President Pence and other Republican officials sitting at a long conference table. "Here, the EXPERTS on women's bodies deciding what #healthcare they need," he wrote. "For example, I bet they are all sure the female orgasm is a myth."
The allegations against Leach have surfaced at a moment when elected officials in Harrisburg and beyond are demonstrating they have little interest in defending male colleagues accused of inappropriate behavior.
"We have to rid the Capitol of those who seek to take advantage of their position and power," Gov. Wolf wrote in an editorial earlier this month about the #MeToo movement.
Last month, the House held a sexual-harassment awareness session for all of its members. A group of female lawmakers in the House and Senate have proposed measures that include banning nondisclosure agreements in sexual-harassment cases to shield the names of legislators and prohibiting the legislature from using taxpayer money to pay settlement costs.
No such policies were being mulled back in 2015, when the former Senate staffer said Leach twice put his hands on her in the space of two months. At that time, she said she felt the process could leave future female employees vulnerable.
She worried it "would just happen again to the next twenty-something-year-old woman," she said. "That shouldn't happen. Harrisburg should be a great place to work."