By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; A01
Not long after Eric Massa joined Congress in January 2009, several male staff members began to feel uncomfortable with the sexually loaded language their boss routinely used, according to accounts relayed to the House ethics committee.
As the months passed, rumors began to circulate in the office that the married New York Democrat had sexually propositioned young male staffers and interns -- allegations, according to two sources with knowledge of the inquiry, that included Massa groping at least two aides.
In the second week of February, Massa's deputy chief of staff contacted the office of Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer for help in dealing with the accusations. Once Hoyer (D-Md.) himself became aware of the claims, he delivered an ultimatum to Massa's office: Report the staffers' complaints to the ethics committee within 48 hours, or Hoyer would do it for them.
Last week, the panel's investigation became public, and Massa resigned, effective Monday.
Massa went on television Tuesday night for the first time since the allegations surfaced, but his comments in two cable television interviews contradicted earlier statements, serving only to raise more questions.
The freshman Democrat told Fox News Channel host Glenn Beck that "not only did I grope [a staffer], I tickled him until he couldn't breathe," then said hours later on CNN's "Larry King Live" that "it is not true" that he groped anyone on his staff.
He told Beck that he resigned from the House because he made the mistake of "getting too familiar with my staff" members, but he told King that he left primarily for health reasons. Massa, 50, has survived non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but he said he is afraid that he is facing his "third major cancer-recurrence scare."
On Sunday, Massa said he was set up by powerful Democrats such as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) as part of an effort to remove opponents of health-care reform legislation. He backed away from that claim Tuesday, telling Beck, "I wasn't forced out. I forced myself out."
"The notion that somehow the White House had anything to do with the series of events . . . is silly and ridiculous," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday, while Pelosi said in an interview with PBS's Charlie Rose that Massa is "a very sick person. He has been diagnosed with cancer." She added, "Perhaps his judgment is impaired because of the ethical issues that have arisen."
Massa told a radio reporter last weekend that he did not know about the ethics investigation until he read about it in an online news story and that Hoyer never contacted him about the allegations. He repeated those points Tuesday night.
But his staff earlier said Massa had been contacted by committee investigators.
Massa said on CNN that his former deputy chief of staff, Ron Hikel, "never said a word to me" about his concerns, and that the news that his aide had gone to Hoyer's office about them "breaks my heart."
"This is a man as close to me as my father. For 40 years we were close friends," Massa said, adding, "I hope someday we'll talk about it."
Hikel, reached at his home Tuesday, declined to comment on the ethics investigation.
Massa's decline from first-term Democratic congressman to former lawmaker embroiled in an alleged sex scandal occurred in just 14 months. Democrats had celebrated his arrival after he seized a Republican-held seat, but that ended shortly after House ethics investigators began pressing his employees to explain what exact terms he used with them and the specific circumstances in which he touched them.
While Massa was appearing on national television, his history as a public official was being scrubbed from his congressional Web site. Constituents looking for Rep. Massa online were told that he had resigned and that most of their questions should be directed to the clerk of the House. Callers seeking to reach Massa were told Tuesday that the staff no longer worked for him and that they did not know how to contact him, even as he was at a television studio a few blocks from the Capitol.
Though Massa has resigned, it is possible that the ethics investigation will continue, according to two sources. The reason for such an inquiry would to be to address the circumstances of any hostile work environment. There are no indications that any of the harassment allegations were shared with law enforcement officials.
Massa's resignation and broadsides against top Democrats have brought him more notoriety out of office than he ever received during his stint in the House.
Though some conservatives pointed to Massa's allegations of being strong-armed by Democratic leaders on health-care reform as emblematic of the kind of tactics that the majority is embracing in the debate, Massa's original critique of the House measure was that it was not liberal enough.
Massa voted against the House bill in November because, he said at the time, it did not include the "robust" public option he sought and because it would "not do enough to regulate the private for-profit health insurance industry and will actually empower them further."
Beyond that vote, Massa did relatively little in the House to draw attention to himself. He sponsored no bills of note and compiled a largely moderate voting record, voting against the health-care measure and last year's "cap and trade" climate bill, while supporting the economic stimulus package and Democrats' budget resolution. Massa touted the fact that the National Journal put him in the "centrist" category after ranking lawmakers' 2009 votes.
After more than two decades in the Navy, during which he reached the rank of commander, Massa moved to Upstate New York to work for the manufacturing company Corning. In his official biography, he says he was laid off from his job because, "due to unfair free trade agreements, the company could not afford to keep those jobs in America."
Massa then became a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee. He says in his biography that he was an early critic of the Bush administration's strategy for invading Iraq and that he was "forced out" of his Armed Services job for "standing up against the failed pre-war planning." Congressional salary data on file at the Web site Legistorm shows that Massa was employed by the committee for eight months in 2003.
Previously a Republican, Massa switched parties after leaving the House payroll and went on to work for the 2004 presidential campaign of retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, for whom Massa had worked when Clark was supreme allied commander of NATO.
Staff writers Ben Pershing and Scott Butterworth and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.