Inquiries Into Massa in No Rush

Four Separate Investigations May Be Moving at Once

Posted April 19, 2010 at 7:13pm

Even as a dispute over salary payments erupted between ex-Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) and his former top aide last weekend, the results of four potential investigations tied to the office could remain shrouded in secrecy for weeks to come.

A conservative ethics watchdog called Monday for a Federal Election Commission inquiry into spending by Massa’s re-election campaign, including a $40,000 payment to former Chief of Staff Joe Racalto.

In addition, at least two aides, including Racalto, filed complaints in March — shortly after Massa left the House — with the Congressional Office of Compliance over allegations that the former New York lawmaker sexually harassed his staff.

The House ethics committee also announced an investigation focused on Massa’s office in March, although it has not publicly affirmed that the inquiry remains active since the Democrat’s resignation.

None of those inquiries are likely to reach a stage resulting in public disclosure for weeks, and in some cases, they may not at all.

The conservative nonprofit National Legal and Policy Center on Monday released a seven-page complaint to the FEC, calling for an investigation into payments made by Massa’s campaign, including a $40,000 “campaign management fee” that sparked a dispute between Massa and Racalto last week.

According to Massa’s most recent FEC report, the campaign issued the one-time payment to Racalto on March 4, one day after Massa had announced he would not seek re-election, citing a recurrence of cancer. On March 5, Massa announced he would resign from the House, in the wake of allegations that he had harassed his aides.

Massa attorney Milo Silberstein did not return a telephone call Monday, but he disputed the payment in a statement issued to the Associated Press last week and vowed to provide details to the “appropriate authorities.” The statement also questioned a raise that Racalto received from Massa’s former Congressional office accounts.

It is not known whether the FEC will opt to review the NLPC complaint or whether it has initiated its own inquiry into the campaign since FEC inquiries remain confidential until a resolution is reached.

William McGinley, of counsel at Patton Boggs, said the FEC, which implemented more stringent policies regarding internal financial controls and embezzlement in 2007, could pursue allegations of unauthorized payments.

McGinley noted he was not specifically addressing allegations involving Massa’s campaign account.

“A lot of these cases are very fact-intensive. The initial volley of facts that we see in reporting or in the FEC reports may not disclose the full picture,” McGinley said.

He added that the FEC could also opt to audit the Massa campaign, although such an action would not occur until the end of the current election cycle.

In the meantime, Racalto’s attorney confirmed Friday that the aide — who remains employed by what is now the Office of the 29th Congressional District, overseen by the Clerk of the House, filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Office of Compliance.

Attorney Alexis Rickher of the firm Katz, Marshall & Banks also stated last week that she represents a former Massa staffer who has filed a complaint asserting a hostile work environment, although she declined to identify the aide or where the complaint was made.

“It’s based on the highly sexualized environment through the time that he worked there,” she said.

Massa denied any wrongdoing during several television and radio interviews in March but admitted to using “salty language” and engaging in improper physical contact with his staff.

Congressional employees, including House and Senate aides, may file formal complaints with the Office of Compliance under the Congressional Accountability Act, which applied laws covering civil rights, fair employment and discrimination to Capitol Hill offices.

The compliance process is confidential, and the OOC does not confirm ongoing cases.

Although the compliance process may ultimately lead to a federal lawsuit — among the only public aspects of a grievance — Congressional employees must first complete several steps, including a 30-day counseling period and then a 30-day mediation period between the employee and the office, which may be represented by the House or Senate employment counsel.

Only after the initial period of at least 60 days can a Congressional employee file a case in federal court or, alternately, seek an administrative hearing, which remains confidential.

According to statistics included in the OOC’s report for fiscal 2008, the most recent data available, about half of its cases concluded after the initial counseling stage, and did not reach federal courts, and therefore not likely the public sphere either.

Among the 88 cases in which individuals sought counseling in fiscal 2008, 40 were closed without further action and 44 requested mediation.

The House ethics committee announced its own inquiry into Massa in March, but the panel has not publicly confirmed whether that investigation remains active.

The committee lost jurisdiction over Massa when he left Congress, although it does retain the power to investigate the actions of his aides, as well as other lawmakers or their staffs who may have been aware of the allegations.

Republican lawmakers have pushed repeatedly for an investigative subcommittee to focus on what Democratic leaders knew about Massa’s behavior and how they responded.

The House referred a resolution that would create a subcommittee to the ethics panel late last week — the second time it has done so — but the committee is not required to act on that legislation. The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics panel, has not issued a public statement on the resolution.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) office, which acknowledged in March that Hoyer aides had been alerted to allegations against Massa in February and directed Massa’s aides to report the matter to the ethics committee, reportedly was contacted by the ethics committee after Massa’s departure in mid-March.

A spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to specify whether any aides in the office had similarly been contacted by the ethics panel.

“As the Speaker said, our staff will fully cooperate with the ethics committee,” spokesman Nadeam Elshami said.