STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
A DAY AFTER two state representatives blasted the Massachusetts House’s use of nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreements with some departing employees, Speaker Robert DeLeo on Friday defended the practice as a “part of doing business.”
During debate Thursday on a legislative rules package intended to better equip the House to respond to workplace harassment complaints, Rep. Diana DiZoglio broke a nondisclosure agreement she had signed as part of a severance agreement when she was a House aide, speaking from the House floor about harassment she experienced and condemning NDAs as silencing tactics.
More than 860 employees have left the House since Jan. 1, 2010, DeLeo’s office said Thursday, and about 150 were terminated or left in some way other than a voluntary resignation. Of those 150, “approximately 33 … were offered a small severance package in exchange for executing a written agreement,” the speaker’s office said.
Speaking to reporters after addressing the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Friday morning, DeLeo reiterated that there have been no settlements related to sexual harassment cases. He didn’t see 33 cases as a lot, given the size of the House.
“When you come right down to it, there’s about 18 of them that really could be looked at, over the 10 years that I’ve been there, two a year maybe,” DeLeo said. “But again, I don’t see it as being extensive. In today’s business world, … we do the best we can in terms of representing the House. Other people have other counsel. I think it’s just part of doing business.”
DeLeo’s office was unable to clarify why the speaker referred to 18 agreements and how that figure differed from the 33 he mentioned on Thursday.
DiZoglio said NDAs use taxpayer money to force public employees to sign away their right to speak. She said that she signed her own in 2011 under duress in order to get her six-week severance pay.
“Today I am breaking my NDA because I found out that it’s not just me who has been told to be quiet,” DiZoglio said on the House floor. “I am not the only one with this type of agreement, and my situation was nothing compared to what others may have experienced.”
She continued, “Those responsible for requiring these NDAs in the past have been very careful in choosing not to document in the language of these agreements why certain employees have had to sign them. The process has been broken for a really long time, and I’m glad proper protocol is being examined in today’s legislation before us.”
DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat, said the document she signed included a “non-disparagement agreement that legally bound me from discussing what had happened and from criticizing any past, present or future elected members of this House.”
She expressed concern that even with reforms adopted on Thursday, the House may still use NDAs in the future.
“These are public tax dollars that are being used to silence people because they might be critical of public elected officials in this chamber,” DiZoglio said during floor remarks. “We should not be in the business of silencing our critics or covering up any harassing or dicriminatory behavior, or even giving the appearance of doing so, with public funds.”
Asked about DiZoglio saying she signed her NDA under duress, DeLeo on Friday said she had been represented by an attorney.
“She had counsel, so I don’t know in terms of pressuring. I don’t know,” he said. “She was represented by counsel and to the best of my knowledge, she seemed to be pleased in terms of the outcome when it occurred.”
Rep. Angelo Scaccia, a Readville Democrat first elected to the House in 1972, on Thursday described DeLeo as the “first speaker in my life” to use NDAs.
“I talked to three former speakers and they never used this vehicle,” Scaccia said.”The two before those three, I couldn’t talk to because they’re dead, but this speaker has used this, and I don’t know the total facts, around 33 times. And if he has used this vehicle, how much money, public monies, has he spent to silence 33 people?”
DeLeo did not answer Friday when a reporter asked if other speakers had used nondisclosure agreements.
The rules package the House ultimately adopted on Thursday included language restricting the future use of sexual harassment settlement agreements, allowing them only on request of the person making the claim and for a finite period of time.
DeLeo said he thinks the House’s effort to tackle sexual harassment “unfortunately sort of got lost in the whole translation” during Thursday’s debate. DeLeo was not in the chamber during the debate.
“I hope people will remember that yesterday we passed unanimously a bill which is probably the strongest in the country, and probably the most reasonable and best attempt being made by anyone to try to address the sexual harassment issue,” he said.