WASHINGTON — A couple of years ago, I got a tip about Eric Massa. It involved his aggrieved former campaign manager, Sanford Dickert, who was involved in an ugly dispute. Dickert claimed Massa had fired him and refused to pay him for work he'd done on Massa's unsuccessful 2006 run for Congress. Massa, he said, had retaliated by issuing a series of salacious charges against him, which Dickert denied, including that he had hired, and then given alcohol to, underage staffers, and also that he had made a pass at Massa's teenage son.
This seemed like a personal dispute that didn't have much news value and was, furthermore, impossible for me to adjudicate. I didn't write about it. Dickert wound up filing a libel suit against Massa, and in the court documents, which you can read here, the strange and bizarre charges are all laid out.
Then came last week's news that Massa, a 20-year Navy veteran elected to the House in 2008, was under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for allegedly groping three young male staffers. Massa sort of denied it, while claiming that the House Democratic leadership had set him up.
All this made the earlier episode worth revisiting. Dickert, who had since reached a settlement with Massa, declined to comment when I reached him. (Update: I see that Massa rescinded his allegations against Dickert and issued this joint statement on Dickert's blog.) But in conversations yesterday and today with some of Massa's Navy shipmates, it became clear that the behavior toward his subordinates that got Massa into trouble in Congress is part of pattern that dates to his time in the Navy.
According to Peter Clarke, a Navy shipmate, Massa was notorious for making unwanted advances toward subordinates. He tells the story of his friend Stuart Borsch, with whom Massa shared a hotel room while on leave during the first Gulf War. "Stuart's at the edge of the bed," Clarke says Borsch told him at the time, "and [Massa] starts massaging him. Massa said, 'You'll have to get one of my special massages.' He called them 'Massa Massages.'" Ron Moss, a Navy shipmate and Borsch's roommate, confirmed that Borsch told him this story at the time.
Borsch, now a history professor at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, didn't address that specific incident, but did confirm to me in an email that he was groped by Massa: "In 1990, aboard the U.S.S. Jouett, I was awakened when a senior officer, Lt. Commander Massa, seemed to be groping me. (I was a lieutenant at the time.) I believe he may have been drinking. I shouted at him and he left. I mentioned the incident to several other officers. I did not officially report it."
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Clarke says that Massa's roommate, Tom Maxfield, was also assaulted. "Tom lived on upper bunk," Clarke say. "When you're on ship, you're almost exhausted 24-7. So a lot of times you sleep with your uniform on. Tom and Massa shared a stateroom together. Massa climbed up on the top of his bunk, which is hard to do--you never crawl up on somebody else's bunk. He wakes up to Massa undoing his pants trying to snorkel him." Ron Moss also confirmed hearing this story from Maxfield. Maxfield did not return calls and messages left for him--I'll update if he does. Slideshow: Sex scandals and elected officials
Massa's shipmates didn't turn him in for fear that he would retaliate. "He was a cocky guy, competent, but he saw himself as a future admiral," Moss told me. "It doesn't surprise me he wound up in Congress." When news of Dickert's dispute with Massa appeared in the Rochester, New York, Democrat-Chronicle in 2006, several of Massa's former shipmates considered coming forward. One of them referred to the dispute as "classic Massa" in an email that was forwarded to me. As Moss wrote to Borsch and Maxfield just before the 2006 election, when Massa first ran for Congress, "I think it is ironic that Massa is accusing this guy [Dickert] of the same thing he tried with you guys (and who knows how many others?) and I think it is pathetic that he would drag his own son into the fray in a public forum." In the end, the former shipmates did not go public with their stories.
Video: Harrassment? However, Massa's behavior in the Navy was not unknown to some in Washington. Around the time of Massa's 2006 race, Clarke says he told Christopher Mansour, then chief of staff to Democratic Rep. Dale Kildee of Michigan, and now a senior official in the Interior Department, about Massa's history. Reached by phone yesterday, Mansour told me, "I just don't want to comment about this. I'd rather not be in this story at all." He added, "I've never met [Massa] or had direct interaction with him."
Massa announced on Friday that he would resign from Congress. That announcement came shortly after the House Ethics Committee had been notified of Massa's behavior in the Navy.
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