It took just three weeks for upstate New York Democratic Rep. Eric Massa to resign his seat in Congress after accusations surfaced that he had sexually harassed members of his staff. The long trail of unwanted and often abusive advances that preceded his resignation—and why his alleged behavior went unreported for so long—highlights how much Capitol Hill is a feudal society, with each member the lord of his or her own territory.
The Washington Post on Tuesday documented numerous complaints about Massa made by junior staffers and interns to the married lawmaker's chief of staff, who appears to have seen his role as trying to contain the damage as opposed to blowing the whistle on his boss's bad behavior. Accusations about the two-term congressman acting inappropriately dated back to the 2006 campaign and continued once he was in office. By March 2009, according to the Post, Massa was out of control, with drinking as his means of handling his sexually conflicted emotions.
Aides reported seeing him pour booze into a coffee cup in the morning, and in the evenings he was allegedly sometimes so drunk that he couldn't tell his aides where he was so that they could pick him up. But outside his fiercely protective top staff, his predatory actions appear to have been largely unknown. He reportedly had a reputation as a demanding and unreliable member of the Democratic caucus, insisting on legislative favors for his district and then withholding his vote on key bills dealing with issues like health-care reform and energy. Members of the Democratic leadership, which is responsible for disciplining its members, maintain they knew very little about Massa's not-so-secret life.
According to sources close to the story, Joe Racalto, Massa's chief of staff, attributed his boss's erratic behavior to the strain of his double life. He was focused on persuading Massa to come out of the closet, as though that would solve the problem—what Massa was doing was illegal, immoral, and unethical. Racalto, a young gay man himself, was apparently clueless about what his legal obligations were as a manager to protect the young people in the office from Massa's alleged offensive advances and sexually charged remarks. His actions were designed to shield his boss, not shed light on the situation.
A loyal chief of staff, Racalto settled on what ultimately turned out to be a completely unworkable strategy. He forbade staffers to be alone with Massa and he sent out a memo imposing a rule against sexual banter, asking staffers to report anyone violating it. Massa was impervious to any efforts to rein him in, and the Post story reports Racalto telling other staffers that he had become a victim of Massa's abusive advances himself. When a hometown newspaper did a feature story on a day in the life of Eric Massa and reported he was living with four young male staffers, the alarm bells finally went off for Racalto.
Racalto called an aide in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office with whom he had previously worked to say that he thought the living arrangement was inappropriate, and that he would insist Massa move out. He also relayed a sexually charged remark Massa had made to a female staffer, but when asked whether he wanted the conversation relayed to the speaker, he declined, saying he thought he could handle the situation. Debra Katz, a lawyer representing an unnamed male staffer who has filed a sexual-harassment complaint against Massa, says Racalto did not adequately notify Pelosi. She traces the breakdown in leadership to Massa's office, and says the scandal escalated because the congressman's aides didn't disclose what they knew outside the office. "This isn't a conspiracy by the Democratic leadership to protect Massa," Katz told NEWSWEEK.
It's reasonable to assume that some people outside Massa's inner circle knew that he'd gone off the rails, but each member's office is a fiefdom, revolving around and reflecting the wishes of the elected official. There are thousands of résumés for every slot, and the young people fortunate enough to land a job or an internship are worked mercilessly hard and are willing to do almost anything to get ahead. It's an environment ripe for exploitation.
After Massa allegedly solicited sex from a bartender at a funeral service for a young Marine killed in Afghanistan and the incident was reported on a blog, Massa's deputy chief of staff, Ron Hickel, new to the staff and presumably freshly outraged, called Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's office to report it along with a string of other allegations. An ultimatum was issued: report everything to the House ethics committee within 48 hours or Hoyer would.
Congress once routinely exempted itself from the workplace laws it passed for everybody else. That ended in 1995, under Speaker Newt Gingrich's leadership, with the creation of the Office of Compliance, an independent, nonpartisan agency created to handle complaints about workplace rules and regulations, including sexual harassment. It's nice that it's there, and it does good things, but the truth is that few Hill staffers know it exists, and if they did, it's not at all certain they would turn to it. The culture of Capitol Hill is not about accountability and responsibility. It's about damage control and circling the wagons, and while Massa will soon be forgotten, it's an outrage that he got away with so much for so long.
Eleanor Clift is also the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.