Eric Massa: Who is the man behind the hard stare?

By Wil Haygood, Carol Leonnig and Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; C01

When the members of the Class of 1981 at the U.S. Naval Academy posed for their out-of-uniform senior portraits, most gravitated outdoors for the backdrop. Some stood by the water, others leaned against buildings. It's clearly a wonderful time in their lives and most are smiling broadly, their gazes seemingly unencumbered by worry.

There is, however, an exception.

Eric J.J. Massa looks into the camera with a severe intensity and no hint of a smile. He stands, half-concealed, behind a shrub.

Last week, Massa's image could hardly be hidden from anyone.

Over the course of a week that seemed to get more bizarre by the day, Massa (D-N.Y.) resigned his seat in the House of Representatives on March 8 amid allegations that he sexually harassed male aides. Then he gave a series of radio and television interviews in which he accused Democrats of forcing his resignation because of his opposition to the health-care bill, claimed the White House chief of staff once accosted him in the shower, and talked about tickling men until they had difficulty breathing. (Through a spokeswoman, Massa declined to comment for this story. He has previously said that he is guilty of nothing more than using "salty language.")

Republicans have all but forced the resumption of an ethics investigation into whether the House leadership acted appropriately when it learned of Massa's behavior toward staffers. Democrats, dealing with multiple ethics issues on top of an ailing economy and two wars, are facing an investigation of a man who had support from some of the party's biggest names and could potentially become a millstone, dragging them down to defeat in November.

Now a gnawing question has settled over Washington: Who is Eric Massa and who helped him while he was here?

In dozens of interviews -- with politicians, congressional staffers, former aides, military personnel, neighbors and others -- Massa emerges as a complex figure. A formal naval officer who is married with three children, he loves walking the family dog. A fellow congressman described him as tightly wound and "very intense." He is a cancer survivor who won a close congressional race while opposing the Iraq war.

Once in office, he entered into an unusual living arrangement, sharing a townhouse with several young, unmarried male staffers. Reports emerged of a dinner date with a congressional aide in his 20s, part of a pattern of spending time with young gay staffers. As the story exploded last week, old allegations of sexual harassment from his Navy days came to light.

Conversations with those who knew him sketch a portrait of a former military man who appears to have been at constant war -- often with himself.

Incidents in the Navy

Eric James Joseph Massa was born in Charleston, S.C., on Sept. 16, 1959. His father, Emiddio, was a World War II vet and career Navy man. Young Eric did not see the South go through its racial convulsions; he was growing up in disparate locales -- Argentina was but one stop -- as his father moved around the world. Eric was as proud of his Italian heritage as he was of the insignia on his father's shoulders.

After attending high school in New Orleans, Massa went on to the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Vice President George H.W. Bush addressed his graduating class, telling them that America lived in "dangerous and difficult times" and vowed that the Reagan administration would continue to insure a strong military.

According to a biography produced for his campaign, Massa spent 24 years on active duty "serving in every operational area that the Navy sailed in." He served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and it was during the time leading up to that military campaign that Massa's behavior began to alarm some of his junior officers.

Tom Maxfield and Stuart Borsch served under Massa during Operation Desert Shield. Both say that Massa, their senior officer, tried to fondle them when they shared quarters with him. The incidents took place on different ships but shared striking similarities.

Maxfield said it was in 1990, while his ship was sailing through the north Arabian Sea. He was sleeping and awoke to find that Massa had pulled down his boxer shorts. Massa quickly scooted back to his own bunk, where Maxfield saw him, he now believes, feigning sleep.

"It was completely inappropriate," Maxfield recalled. He characterized Massa's behavior as "deplorable."

Borsh, now a history professor at Assumption College in Massachusetts, said he was a lieutenant aboard the USS Jouett in 1990 when he also had an encounter with Massa. "I was awakened when a senior officer, Massa, seemed to be groping me," Borsch said. "I believe he may have been drinking." Angry words ensued. "I shouted at him and he left."

Borsch and Maxfield warned fellow officers about Massa's behavior, but they did not report him to Navy brass. When Massa was running for Congress in 2008, both men were asked to go public by retired Navy friends. They did not. Maxfield said he feared his words might be twisted and used against him if he told the truth about a candidate backed by the national Democratic Party. "I feel bad about that every day," he said.

(During his television appearances on Fox News and CNN, Massa admitted he had groped and tickled male staff members, then said later that he hadn't groped anyone and declined to say whether he was gay. "Why don't you ask my wife, my friends, ask the 10,000 sailors I served with in the Navy," he said.)

Massa was proud of his naval service and considered a stint as special assistant to Gen. Wesley Clark during the Bosnian conflict the highlight of his career. (Clark, through a spokesman, declined to comment.)

Toward the end of his naval career, Massa was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and returned to the United States for treatment. When he retired from the Navy, he settled with his wife, Beverly, and their children in Corning, N.Y., close to the Finger Lakes region.

Massa took a job with Corning Glass in 2001, but lost it when the company began downsizing. Using his military contacts, Massa came to Washington in 2003 to take a job as a Republican staffer with the House Armed Services Committee. The experience was a difficult one.

Unhappy with the war

Massa was hardly the only former military officer who disagreed with President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war. But Massa found himself in a place where it was hard to think of anything else. He complained to friends that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was incompetent and Bush was leading the nation down the wrong path. When Clark announced a run for the presidency, Massa wanted to support him. But there was a problem: Clark was running as a Democrat.

On Capitol Hill one evening, Massa intercepted Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), who was on his way to a Clark fundraiser, and asked him to deliver a letter for Clark full of campaign advice. Word reached the Republicans on the committee and they were livid. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) "was partisan," recalled Taylor, referring to the committee chairman. "When he found out one of his staffers was backing a Democrat, he fired him." On his 2008 campaign Web site, Massa would say: "I left my position on the House Armed Services Committee over the plans and strategies dealing with the Iraq war and its aftermath and haven't looked back since."

Shortly thereafter, Massa switched to the Democratic Party.

In 2006, he staged what many in Corning thought to be a quixotic campaign against the incumbent congressman, Republican Randy Kuhl. The district is heavily Republican.

The Rev. Jason McGuire was pastor at a church in Naples, N.Y., at the time. He was impressed. "I remember I went to the first debate he had with Randy Kuhl in Canandaigua," McGuire says. "Massa was strong on the issues, particularly foreign policy. And he was very eloquent. He engaged the audience. It was going to be a battle. And it turned out to be."

Massa lost a close race, but the campaign also left behind an unusual dispute: After his campaign headquarters sustained significant water damage costing tens of thousands of dollars, Massa publicly accused his campaign manager, Sanford Dickert, of using alcohol to lure underage males to their Corning offices and hosting a party that caused the damage. Dickert sued Massa for libel. The case was settled under a confidentiality agreement and the two men released a joint statement saying the entire episode had been a misunderstanding.

Less than a year later, Massa was running again. The race took on wider implications as the Democrats sought to solidify their majority and the national parties poured nearly $1 million into the race. Rahm Emanuel, then head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, personally visited to coach Massa on how to appear more likable while campaigning.

Massa won the 2008 race by about 5,000 votes and moved to a townhouse on Capitol Hill with five staffers, telling acquaintances the living arrangement was necessary because he couldn't afford to have a home in Corning and also purchase one in Washington.

Two former staffers said that Massa hired several young gay men to work in his office. One of his most senior staffers had worked for Rep. Barney Frank, the sponsor of the Lesbian and Gay Congressional Staff Association. By the fall of 2009, according to both Republican and Democratic aides, members of the association were privately discussing whether they should do something about rumors that Massa was making sexually suggestive comments to young male staffers.

At the same time, the party's leaders were helping him raise money. Former president Bill Clinton and Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) were the headliners at a fundraiser for Massa in December 2009. And in late September, two powerful committee chairmen, Charles Rangel and Frank, hosted a Capitol Hill fundraiser in honor of Massa's 50th birthday.

Like most freshmen, Massa had a modest legislative record. He sponsored four pieces of legislation, including one to help youth entrepreneurs win support from the Small Business Administration. He won praise for his support of gay rights issues, particularly his desire to repeal the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Justin Nelson, a co-founder of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, once co-hosted a fundraiser for Massa in New York City. Now, like many others who gave to Massa's reelection campaign, Nelson is asking for a refund, and urging others to do the same. He said he is "shocked and saddened" by the allegations against Massa, and the possibility that the congressman was a closeted gay who used his clout to make unwanted advances on younger men.

In those Class of '81 Naval Academy portraits, there exists a space beneath each student's picture. In that space, either the student or a friend has written a little about the graduate and his accomplishments: "girl chasing and rugby" appeared in one space; someone wrote of going off to study "accompanied by his hot tub." The ditties average 80 to 100 words each. Massa's space has a single word: "Amazing!"

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