Philadelphia City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart released a new audit that paints a damning portrait of the city government’s failure to track sexual misconduct complaints, properly train supervisors, and ultimately protect victims of sexual violence in the workplace.
On Thursday, Rhynhart published the results of a probe into the city’s sexual harassment policies for its 28,000-employee workforce – the second-largest in Pennsylvania – over a six-year period. The findings include evidence that some managers had either concealed or ignored complaints and that the city effectively has no systematic process for punishing elected officials or department heads accused of misconduct.
In tandem with the audit’s release, Mayor Jim Kenney’s office outlined reforms to the city’s beleaguered processes. These reforms include an online submission system for complaints and a central reporting database for human resources departments, which will be overseen by the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations.
But Rhynhart says more substantive change is needed – namely a well-staffed, independent agency to investigate complaints of sexual nature across all city agencies and enforce consistent discipline.
“What has been proposed [by the mayor] is an initial step,” Rhynhart said. “Over the next few months, I expect full implementation of the recommendations.”
The city’s troubled record with handling sexual misconduct in the workplace was the subject of a recent Philadelphia Weekly investigation. Records showed less than a quarter of city departments were able to produce any internal HR complaints. Even large, scandal-prone agencies like the 500-employee District Attorney’s Office admitted they had kept no records of complaints at all.
Rhynhart’s audit confirmed not only the existence of widespread dubious and decentralized record-keeping practices, but also a mystifying process for lodging complaints that varies widely from department to department – and which yields uneven punishment.
The Controller’s audit, which spans April 2012 to June 2018, offers a litany of troubling details:
- The city does not have a policy or procedure for handling complaints when the alleged offender is also the head of a department. The city’s policy states that copies of the completed investigation must be handed over to the cabinet official and department head. As a result, the audit found that “the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations provided the offending city official with the completed investigation substantiating the claim against him and subsequent disciplinary recommendation.”
- The audit identified $2.2 million in settlements related to sexual misconduct lawsuits over the last five years, but Rhynhart suspects the number is much higher. (The city previously acknowledged to reporters that its legal record-keeping and categorization process was less than reliable, and shortcomings are being addressed.)
- 121 sexual harassment complaints were lodged with departmental HR offices over the six-year period. The complaints included both verbal harassment, physical misconduct and sexual coercion. Investigators substantiated just over half (63) those complaints.
- As Philly Weekly reported, there is evidence these complaint numbers do not paint the full picture. Rhynhart’s office also opened a hotline for city employees to share their experiences lodging complaints. Those calls suggested many complaints were swept under the rug – or improperly handled. One caller said they were subject to retaliation after filing a complaint against a high-ranking official. Another caller said their complaint was dismissed because the alleged harassment came from a colleague of the same sex. Several callers reported separate incidents involving the same employee.
- One city worker said they lodged a detailed sexual misconduct complaint with their department’s HR officer, but that same officer later “adamantly informed” the controller’s office that there were “no reported incidents of sexual misconduct in that department” at all.
- Ineffective training also contributed to “the perfect union of circumstances to expose employees to sexual harassment.” The audit found 59 percent of managers, supervisors and executive staff had not received their mandatory training in the last five years.
- The current training regimen fails to provide detailed steps on identifying sexually harassing behavior, as well as how to file a complaint: “Currently, only two of 52 [PowerPoint] slides in the sexual harassment prevention training presentation pertain to the technical approach of handling a sexual harassment complaint.”
- 45 of 50 departments do not have an Equal Employment Opportunity officer, or else the officer’s contact information was not readily available to employees. (The controller’s officer found its own department was at fault and has since taken steps to appoint an EEO officer.)
- Discipline for sexual misconduct is uneven. The report found five departments (Police, Fire, Streets, Sheriff and Aviation) in which sexual harassment complaints against rank-and-file employees resulted in harsher punishments than the same or objectively less serious complaints against department supervisors.
The 44-page report concludes with a number of recommendations for the city, including several updates to the city’s sexual harassment prevention policy. The Kenney administration is already moving to implement some – but not all – of these items.
“Every complaint should be investigated in the same manner; there should be uniformity and consistency,” Monica Marchetti-Brock, the director of the Mayor's Office of Labor Relations, told reporters at a briefing in advance of the audit’s release.
Over the coming months, the administration is rolling out a new database solely for logging and tracking sexual misconduct complaints across the city’s 50 major departments. The Employee Relations Unit, a three-employee division within the Office of Labor Relations, will be tasked with training individual HR units and monitoring the database.
A new submission system will also allow city employees to lodge complaints from their phones. Additionally, the city has expanded sexual harassment training to all incoming employees and ramped up efforts to educate workers on the complaint filing process.
But Rhynhart is calling for far more thoroughly centralized reforms.
The audit recommends expanding the Office of Labor Relations into a well-staffed agency that can independently receive and investigate all sexual misconduct claims from city departments. While departmental cultures vary, the controller says certain HR departments cannot be trusted to fairly handle such cases, citing the Philadelphia Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division’s checkered history handling complaints made by female officers against their male colleagues.
“Our recommendation is that Internal Affairs shouldn’t be doing this [type of investigation] anymore,” Rhynhart said. “There’s too much conflict of interest having this being done within the department.”
However, the Kenney administration says it currently has no plans to expand the Office of Labor Relations, officials said.
Union arbitration also creates a barrier to consistent punishment. City employees found guilty of verbal or physical harassment are often given short suspensions. Some who have been fired or demoted for misconduct can be reinstated through the arbitration process. Even in high-profile cases that result in six- or seven-figure legal settlements – most of which stem from the Philadelphia Police Department – the offending officers remain on the job today.
But Rhynhart says unions should not bear the full blame.
“The unions want to protect their workers,” Rhynhart said. “What I have really learned from this audit is that many things that are blamed on the union are truly fixable by the administration. I only say that to say it’s more complicated and systematic than to blame one actor.”
Rhynhart added that FOP Lodge 5 President John McNesby, who represents the city’s uniformed police officers, is on board with the centralization proposals.
McNesby could not be reached for comment.