Flashback: GOP Councilman Al Taubenberger Dismissed PPA Harassment Scandal as "High School Puppy Love"


(Republican At-Large Councilmember Al Taubenberger | Image: Tom MacDonald, WHYY)

The Auditor General's report on the Philadelphia Parking Authority looks terrible for the PPA Board, as it makes clear that board members knew about former Executive Director Vince Fenerty's 2015 sexual harassment settlement, and they chose to let him stay on the job instead of terminating him.

This is some important context, on this Throwback Thursday, to revisit At-Large Republican Councilmember and PPA Board member Al Taubenberger's reaction to the harassment scandal after a few news cycles of elected officials condemning Fenerty. As Julia Terruso and Claudia Vargas wrote: 

A Philadelphia Parking Authority board member on Thursday defended letting the agency's executive director, Vincent J. Fenerty Jr., keep his job after he sexually harassed a coworker, describing his advances as "a high-school puppy-love situation."

"Can it be interpreted as harassment?" City Councilman Al Taubenberger, who is on the Parking Authority board, said. "Absolutely, because she felt uncomfortable. She brought it to the proper authorities, but always saying very clearly - very, very, very clearly - 'All I want is this to end. I want to work with the people I work with.' And that included Fenerty." [...]

As for the punishment, Taubenberger acknowledged sexual harassment on face value is a fireable offense.

"It is," he said. "But ... we're all human beings. You have to make a judgment call on, how serious was it?"

"High School puppy love" or "reign of an unchecked tyrant?" They can sometimes be tricky to distinguish. But with four harassment claims against Fenerty in only two years, anyone with some basic professional judgment would have voted to fire Fenerty the first time around. Taubenberger later apologized for his choice of words, but denied knowing about any other incidents of harassment, even though he was serving on the PPA board the last time Fenerty's harassment behavior came to light.

Through a spokesman, Taubenberger, who is in Germany, stood by his assertion that the board was never told.

"Absolutely not. He had no knowledge of any prior incidents," said Frank Keel. "Had he [known], he would have never voted to retain" Fenerty.

"He had no recollection, no knowledge of any prior incident."

Asked if perhaps Taubenberger simply forgot about it, Keel said, "I find it hard to believe."

The Auditor General's release points out that four current board members—one of whom is Taubenberger—were serving on the board in 2006 when a prior harassment claim had been filed against Fenerty, so the 2015 decision was the second time Taubenberger gave Fenerty a pass. 

From the release:

“First, there were four board members who served in 2006 and 2015. They all developed acute amnesia and forgot about the 2006 sexual harassment complaint and allowed this guy to keep his $223,000-per-year job even after he admitted to sexual harassment in 2015.

Then, instead of firing him on the spot when someone jogged their memory about the 2006 complaint, they allowed him to resign which opened the door for him to request a $400,497 payout including $109,347 for comp time.

“Whether the PPA board knew about the 2006 complaint is almost irrelevant, because the four who were on the board should have known and they should have factored that into the 2015 decision about the former executive director’s continued employment."

According to the audit, Fenerty's serial harassment of colleagues wasn't even the only scandal where Taubenberger and other PPA board members were asleep at the switch. A sampling: 

  • "No one on the Board was responsible for monitoring the performance of the former Executive Director." Editor's note: This is, quite literally, the principal function of a board of directors
  • The Board had absolutely no idea how much money Fenerty was making or that he kept paying himself more. The Board also didn't pay attention to the fact that he increased his own pay in ways that were completely out of compliance with PPA policy, such as by piling up comp time, sick time, and administrative leave above the Authority's clear thresholds

  • Similarly, the Board had absolutely no idea how much money senior staff was making, or that Fenerty personally manipulated staff records by fluffing their comp time in the same way as he did his own. Had they simply looked at a P&L, they would have been aware of all of this 

  • Despite multiple allegations of sexual harassment, the Board demonstrated a complete lack of interest in creating a safer workplace. As the audit lays out, "PPA's lack of Board oversight, outdated and ineffective employment policies, and a lack of training contributed to sexual harassment allegations against the former Executive Director not being adequately addressed"

  • More specifically, despite multiple allegation of sexual harassment against Fenerty and other staffers, the Authority's sexual harassment policy was never updated to include the absolute bare minimum, such as "specific statements expressing that sexual harassment in the work place will not be tolerated" 

  • Insanely, the Board knew that Fenerty had *complete and total control* over personnel decisions. Per the audit, "The former Executive Director personally selected who was interviewed, personally conducted all the interviews, and made all the hiring decisions" 

  • And the Board knew that Fenerty's hiring practices didn't follow PPA's HR Department protocol. They knew that he handpicked interviewees, and that those individuals did not submit applications to the HR Department. They knew that his hires weren't vetted in the ways required by PPA regulations. The Board knew that the PPA never posted any entry-level positions. (This is obviously is important to the workings of the patronage system at PPA, and has since been changed by interim director Clarena Tolson.)

This looks, and is, bad for everyone involved, and it especially calls into question Al Taubenberger's fitness to serve on City Council.

Someone who was on the board of a public agency but didn't know how much the top official receives in compensation really doesn't have any business having a vote on the City's budget. Similarly, someone serving on the board of a public agency who knew that the hiring and personnel practices were out of compliance with laws and regulations doesn't have any authority voting on employment-related matters (e.g. the inclusion and diversity provisions for Rebuild.)

It's no wonder incoming Controller Rebecca Rhynhart called for the whole PPA board to resign in response to the news, or that Governor Tom Wolf is calling on the legislature to take quick action to return the Parking Authority to local control

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