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Cover-up probe opened in Massa case

Eric Massa

Eric Massa

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The House ethics committee on Wednesday opened what it said will be “a full and complete investigation” into whether anyone covered up information that former Rep. Eric Massa sexually harassed male staff members.

The investigation will likely reach into the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Massa’s chief of staff met with an aide in Pelosi’s office in October — some five months before the New York Democrat resigned — to discuss Massa’s problems with employees.

Leadership aides have insisted that those discussions did not include the sexual harassment allegations.

Massa, 50, resigned from the House last month after the sexual harassment allegations surfaced. The ethics committee cannot investigate former members, but can look into what others did — or did not do — with knowledge of Massa’s conduct.

To emphasize the importance of the case, the four-member investigative subcommittee will be led by committee Chairman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and ranking Republican Jo Bonner of Alabama.

The case has political importance this year, as Republicans have tried to make the ethical conduct of Democrats a campaign issue — turning the tables on an issue that Democrats used successfully against Republicans to win control of the House in 2006.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., stepped aside as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee last month after the ethics panel admonished him for allowing corporate money to pay for two trips to Caribbean conferences.

Pelosi’s office has acknowledged that Massa’s chief of staff, Joe Racalto, met with Pelosi’s staff member and discussed a news story in the then-congressman’s hometown paper. The news story described Massa’s living in a residence with aides on his staff. Racalto told the speaker’s office that he had told Massa, who is married, that he should move out. Pelosi’s office said Racalto also discussed Massa’s use of strong language and the way he ran his office.

In February, the harassment allegations were brought to the attention of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Hoyer’s office demanded that the allegations be sent to the ethics committee.

The investigation will look into whether House members or employees:

had personal knowledge, or were made aware, of Massa’s conduct;

failed to properly report or fully disclose allegations of misconduct; or

had a duty to pursue or call attention to the allegations.

The committee said it will also investigate whether money or other payments may have been misappropriated, or fraudulently or improperly distributed.

Massa’s campaign wrote a $40,000 check to his chief of staff, Racalto, shortly before resigning his seat last month. The aide is among those pursuing complaints against the former congressman.

Racalto’s lawyer, Camilla McKinney, said last week that the $40,000 check was a “deferred payment” for Racalto’s work this year and last year on Massa’s 2010 re-election campaign and for his work on Massa’s transition after the 2008 election.

Massa, however, said the next day in a statement from his campaign office that he did not authorize the $40,000 check from his campaign account for Racalto. Massa also said that someone forged a $40,000 salary increase for Racalto on his congressional payroll.

McKinney disputed Massa’s account, saying both transactions were done at Massa’s direction. She questioned the timing of the allegations in light of Racalto’s sexual harassment complaint against Massa, which was filed March 23, but didn’t come to light until last week.

Racalto is one of two staffers in Massa’s office who have filed sexual harassment complaints against him. Another male aide also filed a complaint March 23 alleging Massa regularly groped him, propositioned him and made lewd remarks to him and other staffers, according to his attorney, Debra Katz.

Katz, who refused to further identify her client, said aggressive sexual overtures by Massa were routine in the freshman lawmaker’s congressional office. They began in early 2009 shortly after Massa took office and escalated over time, particularly after Massa had been drinking, she said.