Majority Leader Harriette Chandler says she expects to serve as acting Massachusetts Senate President during an upcoming investigation into sexual misconduct allegations surrounding the husband of Sen. Stan Rosenberg.
The announcement came late Monday after a nearly eight-hour Democratic caucus held behind closed doors at the State House. Rosenberg announced earlier Monday he would take a leave of absence from his responsibilities as Senate President during the investigation. He has not been accused of wrongdoing.
"I wish I could look at this wonderful election that you have given me with joy rather than the way I feel," Chandler told her colleagues. "The circumstances that have led to this election are unprecedented and they're unfortunate."
Originally, Rosenberg had said he would recuse himself only from any matters related to the investigation or the allegations against Bryon Hefner. He informed senators just prior to a closed-door Democratic caucus earlier Monday that he would step aside temporarily, though he would remain in the Senate.
"I believe taking a leave of absence from the Senate Presidency during the investigation is in the best interest of the Senate," Rosenberg said in a statement. "I want to ensure that the investigation is fully independent and credible, and that anyone who wishes to come forward will feel confident that there will be no retaliation."
"What's most important right now is we work toward a swift and resolute conclusion to this whole sad event," said Chandler.
"The investigation needs to take as long as it takes," said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Republican from Gloucester. "And it needs to go where the facts take it."
Rosenberg, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, expressed shock over the allegations reported last week by The Boston Globe. The Democrat maintained that his husband had no influence over his policy decisions or actions by the Senate.
Several men told the Globe that Hefner sexually assaulted or harassed them, including three men who said Hefner grabbed their genitals. The men, who were not named by the Globe, said they did not report the alleged incidents partly because they did not want to alienate the powerful Senate leader.
Attorney General Maura Healey and Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, both Democrats, said Monday they are prepared to launch an investigation and said anyone with information should feel free to contact either of their offices.
The two said in a written statement Monday that they are committed to providing every survivor of sexual assault "a safe, respectful, victim-centered environment."
"I wish to reemphasize that the most important thing is to make sure that anyone who may have been hurt has every assurance that they can turn to whatever authority they feel comfortable with, with absolutely no fear of retribution, and to restore confidence in the Senate," Rosenberg said in a statement after Chandler's announcement. "During my leave of absence from being Senate President, I look forward to a thorough, fair, and independent investigation. I thank my colleagues for providing this opportunity and have every confidence that the Acting President will help the Senate focus on a robust agenda for 2018."
Most Democratic senators were grim-faced and refused comment as they entered the caucus, which ran well into the afternoon, with reporters staked outside the room.
After six hours behind closed doors, State Senator Barbara L'Italien gave reporters a brief update — as did Chandler, who described a very intense and open conversation regarding the sexual harassment charges against Hefner.
"We are meeting with Senate legal counsel right now in the clerks' office and trying to fashion the order," said L'Italien. "The Republicans are going to come in to be part of all of that."
Lawmakers were expected to vote later Monday on a plan to appoint an independent investigator whose focus likely would be on whether Rosenberg knew about Hefner's alleged behavior, or if Hefner had any clout when it came to matters before the chamber.
Gov. Charlie Baker, who has been paying close attention to the process, said the investigator the Senate picks must have "big-time standing."
"I really do think it’s incumbent on the Senate to make sure that whoever they pick here has big time standing and the independence that is going to be required to do this in a way ensures that others who come forward, can do so without repercussions," he said.
A Globe editorial Monday had called on Rosenberg to take a temporary leave from the Senate presidency, saying a "thorough and credible investigation" can't happen with him in place.
"Ensuring a safe workplace is more important than any one politician — even one as powerful and well-liked as Rosenberg," the editorial read. "Senators should insist on an investigation that’s beyond reproach, and that won’t be possible unless Rosenberg takes a leave from the presidency."
L'Italien publicly called on Rosenberg to step aside "for the sake of the institution" until the investigation is completed.
L'Italien told reporters she did not see how alleged victims could come forward during the investigation if Rosenberg was still presiding over the Senate. She also said it would be difficult for the Senate to conduct normal business under the circumstances.
Another Democrat, Sen. Michael Barrett of Concord, said it was unfair to ask Rosenberg to step aside over allegations against his spouse.
Democrat Karen Spilka is just one of the senators said to be making calls asking for support to temporarily replace him.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren also weighed in Monday, telling reporters "the charges against the Senate president's husband are disgusting and the people who have leveled these charges have a right to be heard and to be respected and protected."
The scenario unfolding on Monday was without modern precedent in the Senate, leaving many questions as to who would preside over the Senate and how business would operate during Rosenberg's leave from the presidency.
Rosenberg said Friday that Hefner would soon enter treatment for alcohol dependency.