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Whitehall mayor accused of inappropriate behavior

In a complaint filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, Whitehall Township Mayor Michael Harakal Jr. has been accused by a former employee of inappropriate behavior.

Ashley Nischan, former human resources officer for the township, described, in the official PHRC complaint, incidents where she was reportedly forced to “endure unwanted touching, even though she repeatedly made it clear she did not want to be hugged, touched or otherwise.” According to Nischan, she also had to endure “closed-door meetings with the mayor while he played suggestive music and was compelled to ride in the mayor’s personal vehicle, alone, while he toured the township, stopping in a remote location.”

At least two other women, both of whom reportedly still work in close proximity with Harakal, have experienced similar behaviors, according to Nischan and stated in the official complaint. Nischan, along with the other women, were reportedly compelled to use “additional and excess furniture to block the mayor’s path to their desks,” according to the formal PHRC complaint. Further, Harakal allegedly made comments of a sexual or highly personal nature to female employees, including Nischan.

Harakal,when contacted by The Press, said he was unable to comment on the allegations; however, his attorney, Scott Hoffman, said “the claims have been thoroughly investigated and found to be without merit.”

“The township looks forward to addressing these matters in court,” Hoffman said.

The PHRC is conducting an investigation before the claims go to court, but Hoffman said there was not much more he could say because the situation concerns personnel matters.

Nischan said she tried to solve the issue internally before going to PHRC. Following a complaint to her supervisors, the township conducted an investigation.

Nischan said she and her colleagues were not permitted to see the findings but, in November 2020, were asked to approve a list of recommendations provided by the independent investigator hired by the township. Those recommendations included:

• Whitehall would revise its harassment policy to include specific provisions to address harassment by an elected official, including the mayor, in the investigation and reporting process;

• Whitehall would conduct harassment and discrimination training for all employees, specifically including Harakal;

• Harakal would be instructed he is not to hold closed-door meetings with any female employees without another staff member present;

• Harakal would be instructed not to touch or invade the personal space of any female employee.

However, these recommendations, among others, were reportedly not implemented in a timely manner, nor did the mayor’s alleged behavior stop.

In a letter of recommendation for Nischan, Deputy Mayor Jack Meyers said, “[The investigation] should have silenced the actions of this official, but the report did not end the conduct.”

The official complaint, submitted by Nischan’s attorney, Steven Bergstein, states, “By making her story public and open to scrutiny, Ashley is hopeful Mayor Harakal will finally be held accountable for his unacceptable behavior toward women, and the township’s board of commissioners will finally take steps to protect the employees who serve the citizens of Whitehall.”

In an interview this week with The Press, Nischan also discussed how public employees are in a vulnerable place and stated the board of commissioners’ course of action was disappointing.

Nischan reportedly resigned from her position in Whitehall in February 2021 and moved to South Carolina, where she accepted a lower-paying position in May. Nischan said she felt unsafe in the community and did not want to risk seeing Harakal. Ultimately, she moved back to her home state, where a majority of her support system resides, she said.

“She left [...] because Whitehall Township, through its board of commissioners, failed to protect her from the predatory and harassing behavior of Mayor Michael P. Harakal Jr.,” according to Nischan’s narrative in the official complaint.

These complaints against Harakal came before Bill 24-2021 was unanimously passed at the Aug. 9 board of commissioners meeting, “amending the personnel policies and procedures of Whitehall Township as contained in Chapter I, Part 8, Article XXXVI as it pertains to the township’s harassment policy.”

Board of commissioners President Philip Ginder said the board takes allegations like these very seriously. He added Harakal will have to step down if the accusations are proven to be true, but for now, he said, everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

Harakal began serving as mayor in 2018 to finish out the term of Ed Hozza and was elected to the position in 2019. He previously held the role of township executive, a position similar to mayor, from 1984 to 1992.