Written March 4, 2010     

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© 2016 Bob Lonsberry


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I’ve known about Eric Massa’s problem for more than three years.

And I’m not talking about his lymphoma.

I’m talking about the fact that he is reportedly attracted to men, and that he manifests it in inappropriate ways.

And now he is leaving Congress over it.

At least that is the assumption in Washington, as he yesterday announced his decision not to seek re-election, on the same day that it was reported that the House Ethics Committee is investigating a claim that he sexually harassed a young male staff member.

In Massa’s statement, he intimated – but did not directly say – that he was leaving public life because of his health. He also referenced – but did not specifically deny – a report of the accusation.

I hope Eric Massa’s health is strong, and that his cancer has not returned. But I seriously doubt that this is about his health.

It is about his conduct.

Currently, it is alleged that he sexually harassed a male staff member, and that this staff member went for help to a more senior congressional staffer, who contacted the office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. According to a statement released by Hoyer last night, he directed that the matter be taken to the Ethics Committee for review.

Hoyer also said that, though he doesn’t know whether the allegations are true or not, he regrets the fact that the episode reflects poorly on the Congress. He compared it to the matter of former Rep. Mark Foley, who sent inappropriate sexual text messages to a male House page.

When I heard the allegations against Eric Massa yesterday, they were sadly similar to allegations I became aware of during his first congressional campaign and which, though I was confident of their truthfulness, I did not report.

The information is this: During his Navy career, Eric Massa allegedly touched at least two men inappropriately and may have exhibited a pattern of putting himself in situations where he would see men naked – particularly younger and lower-ranked men.

These allegations come from general shipboard understandings and conversations, and were relayed to me by shipmates of Eric Massa.

In one instance, Eric Massa was a lieutenant commander and the combat systems officer of the USS Jouett. That made him the third-ranking officer on the boat – behind the captain and the executive officer.

According to another officer on the ship, Massa and a lieutenant were on liberty in the Middle East. Massa had made the motel arrangements and the room turned out to have only one bed. The lieutenant reportedly told other officers on the ship that while they were in the room, Massa came up behind him and started massaging his neck and shoulders.

The lieutenant, shocked by this conduct from a higher-ranking officer, shrugged it off, literally.

In the night, he later told shipmates, he was awakened by Massa’s hands in his shorts. The lieutenant was startled and turned away. Massa rolled over and pretended to be asleep.

Whether that happened or not, only two people know. But the story was known on the ship and was passed to me by a fellow officer and graduate of the Naval Academy.

A few months after this incident, another lieutenant – who had been Eric Massa’s stateroom roommate onboard the Jouett – was having a Hail and Farewell on the beach at North Island in San Diego. At the party – which celebrated the lieutenant’s departure for a new assignment – other officers asked him what it was like to room with Massa.

They then related the alleged incident from the motel room on shore leave. It was the first the lieutenant had heard.

He then told the officers present that he had had a somewhat similar situation. In the stateroom, Massa had the bottom rack and the lieutenant had the top rack. The lieutenant told the people at the Hail and Farewell that one night he had awakened to Massa atop him in his bunk.

The lieutenant rebuffed Massa.

Neither lieutenant officially complained about their experiences. In both instances, Massa was their boss – the No. 3 man on the ship – and they both were afraid of the captain, a reportedly gruff and harsh man. Massa’s stateroom roommate did report the situation to his immediate superior, but the superior – an Annapolis classmate of Massa’s – reportedly said it was best to keep things quiet.

Nothing ever came of either event.

Also while on the Jouett, junior officers were troubled by the fact that Massa used their shower – even though it was four decks below his stateroom and he had showering facilities with the other senior officers.

On a later assignment, as the executive officer of another ship, rumor went around the Navy that Eric Massa was in the habit of using a self-serve laundry next to the enlisted-men’s shower at 6 in the morning. Typically, an XO’s laundry would be done by an orderly, and an officer doing his own would not use the enlisted laundry.

These are the things I knew about Eric Massa three years ago. I had them primarily from one source, and in part from two other sources.

None of the sources wanted to speak publicly, though one of the sources wanted the story to go public. The other two feared retribution and had gone on with their lives and didn’t want to get involved in an old controversy.

Though I very much opposed Eric Massa in both of his campaigns, I did not report this information or ask him about it.

My thinking was this. Though the stories and how they developed seemed genuine, I recognized that it was possible they could have been mere gossip about a caustic and unpopular officer. They may also have been an orchestrated lie.

And while I had enough sourcing to put the information out, from a journalism standpoint, I didn’t feel good about it, from a personal standpoint.

The stories came to me a good 10 years after they happened. I considered that Eric Massa, even if the accusations were true, might well, in the intervening decade, have put his life in order and engaged in better conduct. Further, there was the matter of his family. He is married and has three children, and cavalierly hurting his family was not something I had the stomach for.

Additionally, I didn’t think it was relevant. Not relevant enough to pull the pin out of the grenade and throw it.

Finally, there were political considerations. Though I actively spoke and wrote against Massa’s candidacies – I reported other, more-pertinent damaging information about him – in his first race he had no chance of winning, and in the second race the real issue was the ability of his opponent, Congressman Randy Kuhl.

In short, raising this issue, under those circumstances, didn’t seem right. The good to be accomplished was not worth the damage that would be done.

Withholding the information was a decision I still feel good about.

But I was not surprised when news of the new allegation came forward. It struck me as a continuation of an old behavior pattern.

It also struck me as sad.

Because, while I disagree with Eric Massa, I have come to begrudgingly respect and even like him. He is a carpetbagger, and it galls me that this liberal parachuted in to represent the area where I grew up, but he has over the last year shown a personality that is winning. He has also been a very good congressman when it comes to honoring his district’s servicemen and veterans. A month ago, I saw him stand in line outside a funeral home in 20-degree temperatures for more than two hours in order to pay his respects to the family of a fallen Marine.

I respect that.

But that is over.

And now the question is: Who will replace him?

It is a Republican district, and this fall is shaping up to be a powerful pushback against the Obama Democrats, so prospects look very good for a Republican candidate. Unfortunately, the sacrificial Republican lamb sent up to face Massa is not really worthy of having the seat handed to him on a silver platter.

Though most of the Republican county chairmen have settled on this candidate, they should rethink their endorsements.

Most likely GOP candidates would be Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, former Congressman Randy Kuhl, state Senator Cathy Young and Assembly minority leader Brian Kolb.

Most likely Democrat candidate would be longtime Hornell Mayor Shawn Hogan.

A factor in the race, and who decides to enter it, is the fact that this district will disappear in 2012. When New York redistricts, and loses seats in the House of Representatives, it’s a sure bet that the Democrats who draw the lines will eliminate this majority-Republican district.

If Massa was still around, maybe he could get the Democrats to protect his seat. With him replaced by a Republican, the district is doomed.

So the question will be, who wants to go through a campaign, and give up their day job, for two years in Congress?

The next few weeks will probably answer that question.

Yesterday was an interesting day in New York politics. It began with talk about the governor’s future, and ended with discussion of a congressman’s future.

I was surprised to hear Eric Massa was quitting politics.

But I wasn’t surprised by the reason why.

- by Bob Lonsberry © 2010

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