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.
Racalto said he tried in fall 2009 to block the lawmaker from being alone with young male staffers, including demanding that he move out of a townhouse Massa shared with staff. He confirmed that he pulled Massa out of a Dupont Circle bar in December when he could not get Massa to stop making inappropriate comments to a 21-year-old intern and another male staffer.
"When Mr. Racalto did witness something or hear a complaint concerning inappropriate conduct, Mr. Racalto made every effort to curtail the Congressman's behavior by directly addressing each issue with the congressman," said his attorney, Camilla C. McKinney, in a statement.
Racalto is leaving the Hill for a job in New York. He notified the House last week he would resign effective May 1.
Staffers also said they sought help from Ron Hikel, who became deputy chief of staff in November 2009. Hikel said he was prohibited from commenting for this story because of the ongoing ethics investigation.
When Massa departed Washington on March 9, he gave two nationally televised interviews that made him the butt of late-night television jokes. He first explained that he groped and tickled a male employee "until he couldn't breathe" during what he said were typical antics to celebrate his 50th birthday. In the next interview, he denied groping anyone.
The House ethics committee is scrutinizing what House Democratic leaders knew when about the harassment allegations, and how they acted on the information.
One gay male staffer said he complained to Racalto in spring 2009 that Massa routinely made sexualized remarks to him. The staffer told Racalto he had grown distressed, because of two incidents he had heard about involving Massa allegedly making unwelcome sexual advances when sharing a hotel room with staffers.
The staffer said that Racalto assured him that Racalto would talk to Massa and put a stop to this kind of conversation. But by summer, according to several sources, Massa's sexual commentary had escalated and some of it was directed at an intern.
In June, Racalto issued a memo, later obtained by The Washington Post, prohibiting staff from social relationships with staff interns, because of the appearance. He warned three staffers who shared a townhouse with Massa that "you must be extra careful who you bring home and how you conduct yourself, especially when EM is present" and not to "put EM in a position where he is sleeping and questionable activities are taking place."
In October, a local New York newspaper article chronicling Massa's life in Capitol Hill highlighted the lawmaker's unusual living arrangement. Racalto said he called a former co-worker then in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office to report remarks Massa had made about the sex life of a female staffer and discuss his concern about Massa living with male staffers.
Racalto said he told the Pelosi aide that he would demand that Massa move out of the townhouse. Within a day, Racalto also sent out a staff memo instructing employees to stop the sexual talk, and report to him when that rule was broken.
"It has been brought to my attention that casual conversations of a sexual nature are ongoing," he wrote in a memo obtained by The Post. "This is highly inappropriate, offensive, and against the law. . . . I want to invite all staff to immediately contact me if you are aware of any inappropriate conversations that are taking place. "
In December and January, staff reported, Massa sought to take an intern with him along on two West Coast trips. But Hikel, staffers said, balked at the idea and insisted Racalto stop him. Racalto said he agreed to block the trips.
The incident that eventually lead to Massa's resignation occurred at a funeral reception on Feb. 2 in Hornel, N.Y., for Lance Cpl. Zack Smith. The 19-year-old Marine had died in an explosion in Afghanistan. Massa struck up a conversation with a young bartender serving at the informal wake.
Four days later, a local blogger alerted the congressman's office that someone had posted an anonymous comment on his site accusing Massa of soliciting sex from the bartender, according to an e-mail obtained by The Post.
Racalto said he also received a voicemail message from the bartender asking why Massa wanted to meet him in Buffalo, 85 miles away, for dinner. Racalto said he confronted Massa, and the congressman said he was trying to give the man a law school reference.
"Mr. Racalto told the Congressman he did not believe him, and informed the Congressman that he was going to report his conduct," Racalto's lawyer wrote. Racalto, snowbound in New York, said he called Hikel in Washington, and the two discussed the need to alert House leaders.
Hikel called Hoyer's office about the blog and other allegations of harassment. Three weeks later, Hoyer confirmed to reporters that his office had given Massa's office an ultimatum: Report Massa to the ethics committee within 48 hours or Hoyer would.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.