March 10, 2010 at 11:14 am EST | by Chris Johnson
Massa denies sexually groping male staffers

Former U.S. Rep. Eric Massa, shown here in an undated campaign photo, resigned from Congress amid reports that he’s under investigation for allegedly groping male staffers. (Photo courtesy of Massa for Congress)

A New York lawmaker who resigned from Congress has been under investigation for allegedly groping male staffers, according to a media report, raising questions about his sexual orientation.

Allegations that former Democratic Rep. Eric Massa, who resigned Tuesday, had sexually harassed a male staffer emerged last week, and the Washington Post reported this week that the House ethics committee has been investigating the first-term congressman for allegedly groping multiple men on his staff.

One source told the Post that the allegations surrounding the former lawmaker, whom DC Agenda couldn’t immediately reach for comment, have continued for at least one year and involve “a pattern of behavior and physical harassment.”

Last week, the House ethics committee acknowledged it was pursuing an investigation of Massa, although the focus of their efforts weren’t made public. The committee didn’t respond to multiple requests from DC Agenda to comment on the investigation.

According to the Post, Massa’s former deputy chief of staff, Ron Hikel, provided the information about the staffers’ allegations to the House ethics committee three weeks ago. Hikel had earlier consulted House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s office about the complaints, the Post reported, and was urged to report the allegations to the committee.

Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud, a gay conservative group, said the Post’s reporting that the allegations go back at least one year raises questions about how long House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leadership knew about this behavior without taking any action.

“We all know that there are very few secrets on Capitol Hill,” he said. “If this inappropriate behavior was going on for that long, then other members and the leadership surely knew about it.”

But in a recent press conference, Pelosi said she was first notified by her staff about the allegations surrounding Massa on March 3, according to a transcript of her remarks.

“I asked my staff, I said, have there been any rumors about any of this before?” she said. “There had been a rumor, but just that, no formal notification to our office that anything — a one, two, three person removed rumor that had been reported to Mr. Hoyer’s office that had been reported to my staff, which they didn’t report to me, because, you know what? This is rumor city. Every single day there are rumors. I have a job to do and not to be the receiver of rumors.”

LaSalvia compared the Massa situation to the outing of former Republican lawmaker Mark Foley in 2006. The revelation of Foley’s behavior in that election year symbolized the sense at the time that Republicans were out of control.

“Certainly there are allegations of inappropriate conduct with junior staffers and interns,” LaSalvia said. “That’s similar to what happened in 2006.”

But Lane Hudson, a gay D.C. activist known for his role in outing Foley, said the Massa situation doesn’t compare with the outing of the GOP lawmaker. He commended Democratic leadership for taking action.

“Anyone who compares Eric Massa to Mark Foley is trying to further their own personal or political agenda,” Hudson said. “Even if all of the allegations thus far are true, it is still no comparison. Democratic leadership did the proper thing, which was to refer it to the Ethics Committee for investigation. That’s a far cry from Republican leadership covering up Foley’s indiscretions for years.”

What kind of impact this news will have on the November elections remains to be seen. LaSalvia said the potential impact of the allegations would become more apparent as more information is revealed.

“The culture of corruption, I guess, is a cliché term that we hear about in Washington, and this is certainly an abuse of power by a Democrat,” he said. “There will be implications at the ballot box. Whether that spreads beyond his district in New York is yet to be determined.”

But Hudson discounted the impact this investigation would have on the November elections and said Democrats would find electoral victory if they enacted their campaign promises from 2008.

“If the Democratic majority is worried about the November elections, then they are best served by focusing on passing the agenda they were elected on,” he said.

In a Sunday interview on a New York radio station, Massa characterized his perception of the alleged sexual harassment and why he thinks the ethics committee is investigating him.

According to Roll Call, Massa said he believes the ethics inquiry is based on comments he made during a wedding for one of his staffers. The newspaper’s account noted that Massa attended the event with about 250 people, and made remarks after he danced with a bridesmaid and sat down at a table with several of his staffers.

“One of them looked at me and as they would do after — I don’t know, 15 gin and tonics, and goodness only knows how many bottles of champagne — a staff member made an intonation to me that maybe I should be chasing after the bridesmaid and his points were clear and his words were far more colorful than that,” Massa was quoted as saying. “And I grabbed the staff member sitting next to me and said, ‘Well, what I really ought to be doing is fracking you.’”

Massa said he then “tossled the guy’s hair” and left for his room because he thought “the party was getting to a point where it wasn’t right for me to be there.”

During the interview, Massa reportedly added the staff member to whom he made the comments never said he felt uncomfortable. The former lawmaker also suggested the real purpose of the inquiry was to remove him from the health care debate because of his vote against the House health care legislation last year.

But Democratic leadership has disputed that notion. In a press conference Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called Massa’s accusation “silly and ridiculous.”

“On Wednesday, he announced he would not seek reelection because of a health problem that he said was a recurrence of cancer; on Thursday, he said he wasn’t running because … of his use of salty language; on Friday, he seemed to take some responsibility for his actions at a different event,” Gibbs said. “I don’t know why I would give any weight to what he said on the fourth day any more than I would on the previous three days.”

In an appearance Tuesday on conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s Fox News program, Massa acknowledged he had touched a male staffer, but described it as “tickling” and said it wasn’t sexual behavior. The former lawmaker recalled tickling the staffer at a birthday party.

“Now they’re saying I groped a male staffer,” Massa said. “Yeah, I did. Not only did I grope him, I tickled him until he couldn’t breathe and four guys jumped on top of me. It was my 50th birthday and it was kill the old guy.”

But when asked whether he sexually groped anyone, Massa replied, “No, no, no.”

“It doesn’t make any difference what my intentions were, it’s how it’s perceived by the individual who receives that action,” Massa said. “I’m telling you I was wrong. I was wrong. … My behavior was wrong. I should have never allowed myself to be as familiar with my staff as I was.”

Massa’s remarks and the information reported by the Washington Post raise the question of whether Massa, who’s married to a woman and has children, is gay or bisexual.

Mike Rogers, a D.C.-based blogger known for outing gay politicians, said he has no information on Massa’s sexual orientation.

“He was — when I met him in Chicago at [Netroots Nation] — very pro-gay,” Rogers said. “Running in a fairly conservative district, he supports axing [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’]”

Massa last year voted for the hate crimes bill. He was also a co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Military Readiness Enhancement Act.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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