PROVIDENCE, R.I. – For nearly a decade, Rhode Island's House speaker had a vice grip on the Statehouse.
Armed by the state constitution with powers that exceed those of the governor, John Harwood fiercely maintained a loyal inner circle and punished lawmakers who strayed by holding up their bills or stripping them of committee assignments.
But in recent weeks, Harwood's grip on power has weakened.
His seemingly impending downfall is coming not at the hands of lawmakers he crossed over the years, but from a single mother of three who worked at the Statehouse and claims he sexually harassed her.
Former legislative researcher Wendy Collins said she received a workers' compensation settlement of $75,000 to abandon her claims that Harwood, a Pawtucket Democrat, pressured her into giving him oral sex.
In the past week, Harwood's own leadership team has abandoned him, urging him not to seek reappointment as speaker when a new Legislature takes office at the beginning of next year. Republicans and dissident Democrats have called for his removal. Talk-show hosts and newspaper columnists have all weighed in.
"There's blood in the water and the sharks are circling,'' said Marc Genest, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island.
Harwood, 50, has vehemently denied Collins' accusations and said he plans to run for re-election as speaker in January. "I have no intention of resigning, especially not for something I haven't done,'' he said Friday.
The controversy erupted in mid-August when the 30-year-old Collins, who worked at the Statehouse until August 2001, went public during a radio interview with her accusations.
She claims co-workers harassed her until she gave in to Harwood's demands for sexual favors. She says the two visited a hideaway in the Statehouse twice weekly for a year.
Collins settled her workers' compensation claim in May. She says she was also given a $28,000-a-year job at Rhode Island College, the first new position created at the school in more than 25 years, to keep her quiet.
She relinquished her right to sue, and the words "sexual harassment'' were blacked out of court records. Instead, the documents refer only to a knee injury and work-related stress.
A grand jury began investigating on Monday.
Her lawyer, former state Attorney General Jeffrey Pine, said Collins came forward because she wants the public to know what happened, not because she wanted to bring down Harwood.
"She's just committed to telling the truth,'' Pine said. "She's really not in it for any other agenda other than that.''
In a similar case earlier this year, Virginia House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins resigned after it was disclosed that he paid a woman $100,000 to silence her claims that he groped her.
Harwood said that the settlement had nothing to do with sexual harassment and that it was a run-of-the-mill claim that never named him as a culprit. He has maintained he had nothing to do with the settlement or with Collins, who did not work in his office.
On Friday, a panel of legislative leaders chaired by Harwood voted unanimously to publicly release all remaining documents related to the Collins case. Attorneys for the five-member committee had been withholding the records from the grand jury, citing attorney-client privilege.
Harwood was elected speaker in 1993, campaigning as a reformer who would make it easier for rank-and-file legislators to get their bills through.
Since then, however, he has been criticized by colleagues as autocratic, and by government watchdog groups who have questioned his legal work for state agencies and the appointment of his wife to a lifetime, six-figure job as a state judge.
Rep. David Caprio, a Democrat who aspires to the speaker's post, said Harwood's handling of the Collins matter is characteristic of his iron-fisted style.
"It represents the old way of doing business in Rhode Island,'' Caprio said. "I think that's what people are frustrated about.''