Watchdog group seeks probe of $40K payment to Massa aide

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010; 2:31 PM

A conservative watchdog group filed a complaint Monday with the Federal Election Commission alleging that then-Rep. Eric Massa's campaign violated campaign laws and seeking an investigation into a $40,000 payment to his chief of staff the day after Massa announced his campaign was ending.

Massa's chief of staff, Joe Racalto, says he properly received the $40,000 payment under an agreement last year to perform political work for the congressman's campaign, but records show he never reported the existence of such a contract in his 2009 financial disclosure forms. The National Legal and Policy Center's complaint cites the conflict between Racalto's explanation and his disclosure forms as reason for the FEC to scrutinize the New York Democrat's campaign expenditures.

The complaint also asks the FEC to review Massa's decision to spend $31,800 to renew his lease for a campaign car on March 3, the same day he announced he was retiring and ending his reelection campaign.

The $40,000 payment to Racalto came one day after Massa's March 3 announcement. At that time, Massa was facing allegations he had sexually harassed his young male staffers. Racalto had fielded many of the staffers' complaints and had been contacted by the House ethics committee seeking information on their claims. Massa told The Washington Post on Saturday that he never authorized the $40,000 payment and Racalto tricked his campaign staff by pretending Massa had approved it.

The National Legal and Policy Center's founder, Ken Boehm, said Monday the $40,000 payment and the car expenses both appear to be violations of FEC regulations. Boehm cited a report in The Post in which Racalto declined to provide documentation to show that his fee was for campaign work. As well, Boehm said, Racalto's financial disclosure forms contradict his claim, because in those forms he said he had no outside agreements for non-congressional work and had no expectation of outside income.

"The $40,000 lump sum payment to Joseph Racalto appears to be a highly questionable payment by Massa for Congress regardless of whether it was approved by Rep. Massa or whether it was obtained through deceit," Boehm said in the complaint. "Either way, the weight of facts is compelling that Racalto was not a contract employee with the campaign over a 15-month period."

Massa typically made monthly payments on the lease of about $600 but then paid nearly 50 times that amount on his car lease on the day he announced he wouldn't seek reelection.

"It scarcely needs arguing, but a campaign committee for a person who has resigned from Congress in the midst of a scandal and for whom there are no discernable prospects as a future candidate does not appear to have much in the way of allowable uses for a $31,896.42 car lease," Boehm wrote in the complaint.

Anyone who believes they have evidence that a campaign has violated federal campaign finance laws or regulations can request an investigation by filing a written complaint with the FEC's office of general counsel. The FEC will review the matter and, if the evidence warrants, ask the campaign or candidate to explain why no action should be taken or allow them 15 days to correct the problem.

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