PA Attorney General can investigate the PPA over sexual harassment

One candidate said he’d be asking questions about who knew what and when.

Left: Candidate for Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Right: Vince Fenerty, executive director of the PPA.

Left: Candidate for Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Right: Vince Fenerty, executive director of the PPA.

Flickr and Mark Dent/Billy Penn

Josh Shapiro wouldn’t outright commit to opening an investigation into the Philadelphia Parking Authority if he’s elected to serve as Pennsylvania’s attorney general in November.

But if he were the state’s top law enforcement official right now, he says he’d at least be asking some questions.

“We cannot tolerate a culture of cover-up when it comes to sexual harassment,” Shapiro, a Democrat from Montgomery County, told Billy Penn Thursday. “This is a serious issue, and it cannot be swept under the rug. One of the questions I have is: When did the board first learn about it, and how long have they been silent about this issue?”

The issue Shapiro’s referring to is recent revelations about the agency’s executive director Vince Fenerty, who The Philadelphia Inquirer reported was disciplined by the six-member PPA board last year after he sexually harassed a female coworker for two years. Fenerty, who is a more than 30-year veteran of the PPA, kept his $223,000 a year job as executive director after dropping $30,000 of his own money to pay for an internal investigation into the harassment.

In addition to having to foot that bill, The Inquirer reported the board told Fenerty in a July 2015 letter that independent investigators found “he had sexually harassed a woman who is a senior director in the authority.” He was not fired due to his “acknowledgment of impropriety and commitment to prevent a reoccurrence.”

Instead, he had many of his managerial powers taken away. Fenerty can no longer hire or fire upper-level employees, and he can’t go on trips for work without permission from the board in advance. He also has to attend counseling, which he’s expected to pay for himself.

Shapiro called the discipline handed down by the PPA board “a slap on the wrist.”

“It is shocking to me that the executive director in a serial way sexually harassed someone who was a direct report to him for two years,” Shapiro said. “And at the end of it, all he gets is a modest slap on the wrist. It’s outrageous, and it speaks to the fact that there are two sets of rules in our society today: one for the well-connected and one for everybody else.”

While the Parking Authority’s namesake has “Philadelphia” in it, the PPA is technically a state-run agency with the majority of its board appointed by the governor. (Those who represent the state on the board now were appointed by former Gov. Tom Corbett.)

That’s why if a law enforcement agency were to investigate the PPA, the attorney general would have oversight. Jeff Johnson, a spokesman for the attorney general, confirmed their jurisdiction, saying “the law gives the Attorney General’s office the right to examine the books, accounts and records of a parking authority [in a city] of the first class.” A city “of the first class” refers to Philadelphia. Johnson said the office “does not typically comment further on such matters.”

Shapiro isn’t the only one to pile onto the PPA following The Inquirer‘s report on Fenerty. In a statement, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration urged the PPA to take sexual harassment seriously and said any agency dealing with such a matter should consider terminating the employment of the offender.

“Sexual harassment is abhorrent and unacceptable,” a spokesman for Wolf said in a statement. “Governor Wolf would urge leaders of any organization, including the board of PPA, to take sexual harassment seriously and mete out serious discipline to offenders including termination of employment.”

Felicia Harris, the chair of the Philadelphia Commission for Women, took it one step farther, saying in a statement that Fenerty should resign.

“There is no question that Vince Fenerty’s behavior disqualifies him from leading a major state agency, a fact all but acknowledged by the Board when they stripped him of most of his professional responsibilities last year,” Harris said.

Meanwhile, City Councilman Al Taubenberger, who sits on the PPA board, told The Inquirer Fenerty’s behavior was “a high-school puppy-love situation.” He later apologized, saying “in no way did I mean to infer that any instance of sexual harassment isn’t serious and reprehensible.”

Taubenberger didn’t respond to a request for comment. City Commissioner Al Schmidt, who also sits on the PPA board, declined to comment, citing a “personnel matter.”

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