Massa gave $40,000 to aide before resigning as congressman

By Carol D. Leonnig
Saturday, April 17, 2010

The day after Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) announced he was resigning amid a sexual harassment scandal, the congressman wrote a $40,000 check from a campaign account to his chief of staff, federal campaign records show.

In the records, Massa described the March 4 payment to Joe Racalto as a "campaign management fee."

Racalto said through his attorney Friday that the lump-sum payment was for work on Massa's reelection campaign for 2010. Racalto agreed to defer being paid for 15 months -- until he learned Massa was not going to stay in office, the attorney said.

Under federal law, a congressional staff member's payment for work on a campaign must come from campaign funds, not from the salary received for congressional work.

The payment to Racalto came at a time of great turmoil in Massa's office. Because of his resignation, Massa's reelection campaign was, for all practical purposes, abruptly ending.

At the same time, the House ethics committee and numerous reporters were contacting Racalto, seeking to interview him about allegations that his boss had sexually harassed and groped his young male staff members. Racalto, as The Post reported last week, knew a great deal about several male staffers' repeated complaints concerning Massa's lewd talk and sexual touching.

Later on Friday, Racalto's lawyer, Camilla McKinney, confirmed that her client filed a complaint on March 23 alleging that Massa sexually harassed him while they worked together. She declined to provide details or to say where the complaint was filed. Such claims are generally made to the House Office of Compliance, which does not make them public in their early stages.

Massa's attorney, Milo Silberstein, said the former congressman was declining to answer questions about the payment or Racalto's work.

McKinney said Friday that the $40,000 amount was determined under a contract, which established quarterly amounts that Racalto would be paid. She said she could not provide the date the contract was signed, and could not provide a copy of the agreement.

McKinney said Racalto's work on Massa's reelection campaign for 2010 began in mid-December 2008, a few weeks after he won election to Congress.

Four current and former campaign staffers told The Washington Post that they were surprised by the payment and that they were unaware Racalto was doing any substantial campaign work during that time. They requested anonymity because of the House ethics investigation of Massa and because they did not want to hurt their job prospects on Capitol Hill.

All the other staffers working on Massa's campaigns -- for 2006, 2008 and 2010 -- were paid in more regular installments, often monthly and sometimes quarterly. Campaign reports also show that they were reimbursed for travel, mileage and other campaign-related expenses.

The reports show that Racalto received no payments before March 4 and was not reimbursed for any campaign-related expenses.

Stanley Brand, a white-collar defense lawyer and former House general counsel, said that members of Congress have some discretion in how much they pay campaign workers, but that Federal Election Commission rules mandate that the time congressional staff members spend on campaign work be documented.

To create a wall between congressional and political work, aides are required to use non-government phones to make fundraising calls and to leave their congressional office buildings to engage in other related electioneering. Brand said the amount Racalto received after so many months may well be justified but could also raise eyebrows.

"He can assert that he deferred payment and it may be fine; still, the question here is about the amount," Brand said. "If it ever came to an enforcement action in front of the FEC, they would ask for some documentation of how much time he spent. I don't know that they're just going to take his word for it."

Numerous current and former staff members in Massa's Washington office questioned the amount of the payment. They said Racalto was busy as the chief of staff and often was away for medical treatment.

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