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

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By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Just three months after Eric Massa took office in 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.

Senior staff members for the New York Democrat 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 spoke on the condition of anonymity because of 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 married lawmaker, now 50, of far more egregious behavior than previously known. Beginning in March 2009 and over the next several months, male staffers complained that their boss 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 working 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. Massa, who represented a district in western New York, resigned a few weeks later. He declined to comment for this story.

Balance of power

Several staffers say the Massa episode reveals both congressional staffers' 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, an attorney for one staffer who alleges he was harassed by Massa, 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 Washington office felt they had nowhere to turn, she said. For months, according to numerous accounts, Massa's aides tolerated an 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 members of Congress 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. Two sources said Racalto told staffers that he himself had been a victim of Massa's advances.

In a statement through his attorney, Racalto declined to answer questions about whether he was harassed by Massa. He did answer several other questions in comments relayed by the lawyer. He disputed claims that he mishandled the situation, but said he had difficulty controlling his boss and lacked guidance on what to do. He said he confronted Massa about allegations of improper advances but the lawmaker denied doing anything improper.

Racalto said he tried in the fall of 2009 to block Massa from being alone with young male staffers and demanded that he move out of a townhouse he shared with staff members. He confirmed that he pulled Massa out of a Dupont Circle bar in December when he could not get the lawmaker 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," his attorney, Camilla C. McKinney, said in a statement.

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