By Carol D. Leonnig and Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010; A01
Republicans on Thursday pushed the House ethics committee to look into whether Democratic leaders responded appropriately to complaints of misconduct by then-Rep. Eric Massa, an inquiry that could become an election-year embarrassment for Democrats.
The House voted 402 to 1 to refer to the ethics panel a GOP-backed resolution demanding a resumption of an investigation of Massa's activities and a final report on the matter by the end of June. While the vote does not bind the committee to act, Democrats seem resigned to the idea that the inquiry will gain new life. The quick reversal came as Democrats began to acknowledge their increasing vulnerability to charges that they have tolerated ethics transgressions by caucus members.
Massa resigned his seat Monday, insisting he was guilty of nothing more than using "salty language" with members of his staff. But on Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that he was under investigation for allegedly groping multiple staffers in several incidents. On Wednesday afternoon, the ethics panel met privately and decided to end the Massa investigation, citing the fact that he is no longer a member of Congress. Hours later, reports surfaced that the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had been alerted in October to the attention that Massa was said to be paying to young male staffers.
House leaders have said that allegations of sexual misconduct were reported to them in February and that House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) moved rapidly to ensure that they were investigated.
Pelosi's top spokesman said Thursday that the concern that Massa's chief of staff relayed to Pelosi's office in October was not viewed as a warning about staffers being at risk, but more as a request for advice in dealing with a troublesome member of Congress.
Pelosi said in an interview on MSNBC late Thursday that the information in October "didn't come close to an allegation," and she dismissed Republican complaints about the handling of the matter. "It's another subject people would like to make into a distraction," she said.
When Hoyer's staff told Pelosi's staff about the new allegations in February, the speaker's staff concurred that it should be referred to the ethics committee, sources said.
GOP leaders, however, went on the offensive after Massa acknowledged on national television Tuesday that he had tickled and groped one of his male staffers, and then recanted in an interview hours later, saying that he had not groped anyone. Top Republicans said that without a full investigation, the public would never know whether the speaker and Democratic leaders had taken the proper steps to protect congressional employees. They cited the inquiry of then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who was accused of sending sexually explicit text messages to young male former House pages. After Foley resigned, that investigation focused on whether House Republican leaders sometimes ignored warnings about Foley's conduct and whether others tried to avoid public disclosure.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), citing media accounts, said there are "serious and legitimate questions about what Speaker Pelosi -- as well as other Democratic leaders and their respective staffs -- were told and what those individuals did with the information in their possession."
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Democrats are not living up to their promise of being the "cleanest and most ethical Congress in history."
"That promise is being broken every day," he added.The allegations
In October, Joe Racalto, who was Massa's chief of staff, told a Pelosi aide that the New York Democrat was living in a townhouse with a group of young, male staffers, that he routinely used foul language in the office and that he had recently asked a young male aide in Rep. Barney Frank's office to go out to dinner. Racalto also discussed the dinner with Frank's chief of staff.
But Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said the aide, the speaker's director of member services, thought the matter was being handled properly when Racalto said he planned to tell Massa that he had to move out of the townhouse because his living there did not appear "congressional."
"There's nothing in the conversation that rose to the level of an allegation that he thought he had to act on," Daly said. "Therefore, he didn't believe it was necessary to do anything. He believed the chief of staff was going to ask Representative Massa to move out of the house, and he agreed that that was the right thing to do."
Hoyer learned Feb. 9 of allegations that Massa had groped staffers, according to four sources familiar with the discussion, a day after his staff was alerted to them. During a blizzard that paralyzed Washington, Hoyer's staff contacted Massa's deputy chief of staff Feb. 10 to demand that the allegations be reported to the House ethics committee or he would report them himself.
In an interview Thursday, Frank (D-Mass.) confirmed that his chief of staff had called Racalto "in an excess of caution" to alert him that Massa had taken one of Frank's junior staffers out to dinner. "Joe said that he already knew about the situation and was considering how to address it," he said.
Frank said that his chief of staff wanted Massa's office to understand the perception it created but that the junior employee reported nothing improper and there was no indication the dinner was part of a pattern.
"When someone is seen with someone much younger in a staff position, people will understandably raise questions. If it had been a young woman, it would be the same problem," Frank said. "She said, 'You know, Joe, people talk in this town. Your boss was out with a young man last night.' " Frank said he didn't know about the conversation until it was reported Wednesday evening.Series of scandals
The Massa controversy is the latest in a series of scandals that Republicans have used to make the case that Democrats are plagued by broad corruption problems worthy of punishment at the ballot box in November.
Two other New York Democrats -- Rep. Charles B. Rangel, who vacated his committee chairmanship, and Gov. David A. Paterson, who abandoned his reelection effort -- have provided damaging headlines in recent weeks. The Massa scandal -- and the potential implication of Hoyer, Pelosi and their aides -- gives Republicans the chance to argue that Democrats have betrayed the promises they made to clean up the House when they took control of the chamber in 2006.
Democrats, for their part, say the House GOP's record of scandals far outstrips those plaguing the majority. "John Boehner is all too ready to cast stones from glass houses -- even though he was part of and a leader of one of the most corrupt Congresses in history," said Hari Sevugan, the Democratic National Committee spokesman.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.