Post state settlements on website
Civil litigation settlements often include nondisclosure agreements. The defendant admits no wrongdoing while agreeing to compensate the plaintiff, who agrees not to disclose the amount. That’s no problem between most private parties involved in lawsuits because the matter at hand usually is their business alone.
It’s a different matter, however, when a government is the defendant. Even though government officials sometimes try to hide settlement terms under the guise of protecting the plaintiff, Pennsylvania long and properly has held that citizens have the right to know settlement terms, especially compensation.
Even that doesn’t mean that all settlements are disclosed, however. Though settlements technically are public information, it’s a case of the tree falling in the forest, the sound of which is lost if no one hears it. If a government settles a lawsuit of which no one had been aware, it, in effect, is not disclosed even if it is on the books. That is all the more so if a complaint is settled before a lawsuit is filed.
That was the case with a series of sexual misconduct cases that were filed in recent years against elements of the state government, including the Legislature. Most were settled quietly with state money, and because the plaintiffs did not want publicity and the defendants craved silence to protect their jobs or political standing, the public was not aware of them until some subsequent high-profile cases brought them to light.
Earlier this year the nonpartisan Joint State Government Committee revealed that state government agencies had settled 597 sexual harassment complaints for $1.9 million.
Republican state Rep. Marcy Toepel of Montgomery County, who told The Caucus that she was shocked by the numbers, has sponsored a sensible bill to ensure public disclosure. Details of every state settlement, whether due to an inhouse complaint or lawsuit, would be posted on the PENNWATCH website, on which the government posts salaries, budgets and other financial data.
The House passed the bill in October and the Senate should follow suit.
Lawmakers should not stop there, however. It should require all governments in Pennsylvania to notify the public of such settlements, not just because of the public money involved but to offer insight on government operations.