Staffers' accounts paint more detailed, troubling picture of Massa's office

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2010; 5:50 PM

Just three months after Eric Massa was elected to Congress, his young male employees on Capitol Hill began complaining to supervisors that the lawmaker was making aggressive, sexual overtures toward them, according to new interviews and internal documents.

The senior staff, one of whom said he heard Massa (D-N.Y.) making lewd remarks to young staffers, tried to manage the problem internally. But reports of Massa's inappropriate behavior continued, leaving junior workers feeling helpless, according to victims, other staffers and sources close to an ongoing House ethics investigation. Most asked not to be named due to the ethics probe and the risk of hurting their job prospects.

This account, drawn from more than two dozen interviews and internal documents, shows that aides were accusing the 50-year-old married lawmaker of far more egregious behavior than previously known. Beginning in March 2009 and over the next several months, male staffers complained that their boss had touched them in a sexual manner, came up with reasons to have staffers travel alone with him on overnight trips, and expressed a desire to have sex with the men in the office.

But it wasn't until after a year of staff complaints -- when allegations about Massa's behavior threatened to become a public embarrassment -- that supervisors alerted congressional leaders to the problem. That led House leadership to demand the matter be referred to the ethics committee. Massa resigned a few weeks later when the media reported he was the subject of a harassment probe. He declined to comment for this story.

On Tuesday, in response to an earlier version of this article, House Minority Leader John Boehner called on the ethics committee to delve deeply into how such allegations could continue for a year with no relief for staff.

"It is now readily apparent that Congressman Massa's pattern of troubling behavior continued long after Democrats first became aware of his conduct," Boehner said. "Speaker Pelosi's staff has acknowledged they knew about problems in Mr. Massa's office back in the fall of 2009. What action, if any, did the Speaker and the Democratic leadership take to protect Rep. Massa's subordinates from harassment and abuse?"

Several staffers say the Massa episode reveals congressional staff's lack of faith in their workplace protections and the deference that office supervisors showed Massa.

"Both the Chief of Staff and the Deputy Chief of Staff attempted to rein in the Congressman, but their efforts were ineffectual and by the fall of 2009, Congressman Massa's behavior spiraled out of control," Debra Katz, attorney for one staffer who alleges he was harassed by Massa and has initiated a complaint against him, said in a statement. "This left my client and other gay men in the office even more vulnerable to Representative Massa's predatory behavior."

Staff in the D.C. office felt they had nowhere to turn, she said. For months, according to numerous accounts, Massa's aides tolerated a frat house environment full of sex talk and lewd behavior.

"It speaks to the significant power differential that exists between members of Congress and the personnel they employ," Katz said. Even though a 1995 law prohibits Congress members from engaging in sexual harassment, she said, "staffers by and large are fearful of retaliation and career suicide if they file complaints or go outside of their offices to report sexual harassment."

In one instance, a staffer said he alerted Joe Racalto, Massa's chief of staff, in March 2009 that Massa tried to fondle a young colleague in a hotel room during the 2008 campaign. Racalto told staffers he believed their complaints, because he had heard similar stories, according to staffers. Two sources said that Racalto told staffers he himself had been a victim of Massa's advances.

In a statement through his lawyer, Racalto declined to answer questions about whether he was harassed by Massa, or had filed a harassment complaint against the lawmaker. He did answer several other questions in comments relayed by his lawyer. He disputed claims that he mishandled the situation but said he had difficulty controlling his boss and lacked a manual to guide him. He said he confronted Massa about allegations of improper advances, but the lawmaker denied doing anything improper.

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