With Justice Probe, Massa Saga Gets Messier

Just when you thought the charges involving former Democratic congressman Eric Massa's alleged sexual misconduct couldn't get any more convoluted, new issues of possible financial fraud surfaced over the weekend, prompting the House ethics committee to take the unusual step of launching a full investigation even though Massa has resigned.

As that news was being digested, documents obtained by The Washington Post reveal that FBI and Justice Department prosecutors are pursuing a separate public-corruption investigation into large payments, made shortly before Massa resigned, from his campaign fund to his chief of staff, and to renew the lease on the congressman's personal car.

The involvement of the Justice Department underscored the seriousness of the allegations against Massa, and now potentially against his chief of staff, Joe Racalto.

The notoriously press-shy ethics committee announced in a statement that it was establishing an investigative subcommittee to look into the charges about Massa and also whether any staffer violated any laws or House rules in handling the matter.

The committee, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, had to act after Massa, through his attorney over the weekend, charged that Racalto, his former chief of staff, had forged his signature on a document giving him a $40,000 pay increase, from $120,000 to $160,000, the maximum allowable under House rules. Massa also denied authorizing a $40,000 check from his campaign account written to Racalto for work that it is not clear was performed. Federal prosecutors are gathering phone records, e-mail, and BlackBerry accounts relating to the payments.

Racalto's lawyer claims both payments were justified and authorized by Massa, but the growing volume of cross-allegations makes a full investigation not only politically expedient for both Democrats and Republicans, but essential to sorting out what actually happened. Racalto's lawyer, Camilla McKinney, told the AP that the timing of Massa's accusations is suspicious, since they were made just days after Racalto had gone public with his complaint that Massa had sexually harassed him.

It doesn't take too much of a conspiratorial mindset to wonder about that generous pay raise, and that $40,000 check for undetermined campaign work. Why did Massa pay him, if he did, or why did Racalto forge documents, as Massa alleges? For now, it's a classic "he said, he said"—but there should be a paper trail that will ultimately answer the question of who did what, when, and why.

In the meantime, the scandal, while widening and prompting a Justice Department investigation along with a full ethics probe, seems confined to Massa and his immediate staff. "I still see no evidence that allegations of misbehavior extend out of the office," says Debra Katz, the attorney representing one of the young male staffers who has filed a complaint against Massa.

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