Massa Has Not Gone Quietly

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    (FILE PHOTO) Former U.S. Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY)

    For nearly a year, the allegations of scandalous activity in former Rep. Eric Massa’s office were kept quiet — by the congressman, by male aides who accuse him of sexually harassing them and by other congressional staff. 

    But with two aides coming forward last week to announce that they had filed harassment claims against the New York Democrat, charges and countercharges are exploding into full public view, ensuring that the Massa saga will not simply go away. 

    Instead, it will raise old questions about whether Congress is able to effectively police its own members and staff, and the degree to which staff members are responsible for — or even capable of — reining in lawmakers who are accused of abusing their power. The answers may become apparent only if the ethics committee reports on its investigation into the matter or if sexual harassment claims filed with the congressional Office of Compliance are not settled by the parties. 

    One thing is clear: Despite Congress’s voting in 1995 to subject its members and staff to basic employment laws, there are still tremendous institutional obstacles — both structural and political — in the path of aides who believe they have suffered discrimination or harassment. 

    Lawyers for an anonymous Massa aide who made public this week a sexual harassment claim against the former congressman portray a lawmaker whose behavior escalated from juvenile to loutish to sexually harassing in a short period of time and a senior management team that, for months, ineffectively attempted to handle the matter internally. 

    “Despite the fact that this was a major problem in the office, no one was able to rein in the congressman’s behavior until it exploded,” Debra Katz, an attorney for the anonymous aide, told POLITICO last week. 

    At the top of that management team was Joe Racalto, who announced Friday that he had filed his own sexual harassment claim against Massa. Racalto raised concerns about elements of Massa’s behavior to an aide of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in October 2009 — about seven months after the lawyers for the anonymous aide say allegations of Massa improperly touching staff were first brought to senior management in his congressional office — according to Pelosi’s office. The Pelosi aide was told that Massa was living with several of his aides and used inappropriate language around the office, according to another Pelosi aide. 

     

    The announcement of Racalto’s harassment claim against Massa came less than two hours after POLITICO reported that Massa’s campaign paid Racalto a lump sum of $40,000 on March 4, the day before the congressman officially resigned from the House. 

    Massa told The Associated Press on Saturday that he didn’t authorize that payment or a $40,000-per-year raise Racalto received in his official capacity as chief of staff, a bump Massa said required that his signature be forged. Massa added that he would notify the proper authorities about the matter.
    Racalto’s attorney, Camilla C. McKinney, contradicted Massa, saying that both the campaign payment and the congressional office salary hike were proper and authorized.

    McKinney accused Massa of trying to undercut her client’s sexual harassment claim.

    “The former congressman is trying to discredit someone who is making a sexual harassment complaint against him,” she said.

    Still, the timing of the campaign’s payment, amid Massa’s resignation and an ethics committee investigation into the matter, is sure to raise eyebrows. Racalto, who is still employed by the House, has spoken with the ethics committee on several occasions, according to McKinney.

    Though the panel no longer has jurisdiction over Massa, it has been pursuing an informal investigation into how lawmakers and their aides handled allegations that the congressman was sexually harassing his aides.

    In addition to other questions about the payments to Racalto, aides at Racalto’s pay level have an outside-income limit of $26,550, and it is not clear whether the lump-sum payment from the campaign would put his earnings over that cap.

    Racalto’s lawyers say the campaign money was a “deferred payment” for work done after the 2008 election and in preparation for the 2010 election, though The Washington Post reported that several sources challenged whether Racalto did any substantial campaign work.

    Katz said her client’s claim includes allegations that Massa groped, touched, propositioned and otherwise sexually harassed her client and other gay male aides in the office. She said incidents were reported to senior aides as early as March 2009 but that those managers were “ineffectual in their efforts” to alter Massa’s behavior.

    The final straw for Racalto and his deputy, Ron Hikel, came in early February when allegations surfaced that Massa had invited a bartender at a wake for a Marine in Hornell, N.Y., to a rendezvous in Buffalo, nearly two hours away by car, according to an article published in the Post last week.