By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010; A06
The Justice Department has begun investigating potential abuses of public office by former congressman Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) and his aides, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
A team of FBI agents and Justice prosecutors who specialize in public corruption appears to be focusing its preliminary inquiry on large payments Massa's campaign made last month to his top congressional aide and the decision to renew the lease for the lawmaker's personal car within days of his announcement that he would not seek reelection.
The inquiry is being jointly led by the Justice Department's public integrity section and the fraud and public corruption unit of the U.S. attorney's office in Washington.
Federal prosecutors served a former Massa staff member with a request to preserve all phone records, e-mail, BlackBerry accounts and other documents relating to Massa's campaign and congressional office. Debra Katz, an attorney for the former staffer, confirmed Wednesday that prosecutors contacted her about her client's documents and knowledge of the payments.
On March 3, Massa announced that he was resigning amid reports that the House ethics committee was investigating allegations that he sexually harassed and groped young male staffers in his office. The following day, Massa's campaign paid $40,000 to his chief of staff, Joe Racalto, a key witness in the ethics investigation, The Post reported last week. The campaign also paid $31,896 on March 3 to renew a car lease for a campaign vehicle for Massa.
Attorneys for Massa and Racalto did not respond to e-mails and calls seeking comment.
After campaign finance reports revealed the payments, Massa said in a statement that he did not authorize the $40,000 check to Racalto and accused his former confidant of falsely telling the campaign comptroller that the fee had been approved.
Racalto disputed that, and said he was owed the $40,000 under a long-standing agreement with the congressman to be paid for ongoing political work. After receiving the payment, Racalto filed a sexual harassment complaint against Massa.
News of the federal criminal investigation overshadowed another significant development on Wednesday: The House ethics committee announced that it is establishing an investigative subcommittee to look into alleged misconduct surrounding the Massa case. The panel had been informally scrutinizing Massa's conduct since February, but is now taking that review to a much more serious level.
Because the committee cannot investigate former House members, it will look into what other members, staff and officials knew and did about Massa's behavior. Racalto told an aide in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in October that he had concerns about Massa's interactions with staff members. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), whose office was informed of the groping allegations in February and urged Massa aides to immediately refer them to the ethics committee, asked the House on Wednesday to consider increasing protections for staff members who allege misconduct by lawmakers.
The House in March called for the ethics committee to reopen its investigation of the Massa scandal, after House Republican leaders pressed for action. The inquiry was originally closed because Massa, no longer in office, was beyond the panel's jurisdiction. But Republicans argued that the actions of other Democrats who knew about Massa's conduct needed scrutiny.