Massa's Alleged Misconduct: Enough to Cost a Congressman His Job?

The congressman tells his side of the story

Over the weekend, we learned Rep. Eric Massa's side of the story in the House ethics investigation that has coincided with his decision to leave Congress: the allegation that he sexually harassed a male staffer, according to Massa, has to do with a comment he made at a wedding reception on New Year's Eve.

At the wedding of one of his staffers, Massa says, he danced with the bride and a bridesmaid, and, when one of his male staffers suggested the married Massa should be chasing after the bridesmaid, he tousled the staffer's hair and suggested that he, the staffer, should be the object of Massa's ardor. Massa said this on New York's WKPQ radio on Sunday, audio of which was posted here (link is no longer working, at the time of this post).

Quotes from Politico :

"I have to come find out that on New Year's Eve, I went to a staff party -- it was actually a wedding for a staff member of mine," Massa said. "There were 250 people there. I was with my wife, and in fact we had a great time. She got the stomach flu, I went down to sing Auld Lang Syne. And with cameras on me -- I'm talking three of them -- filming me, I danced with the bride, and I danced with the bridesmaid. Absolutely nothing occurred.

"I said goodnight to the bridesmanid. I sat at down at the table where my whole staff was, all of them, by the way bachelors. One of them looked at me and -- as they would do after, I don't know, 15 gin and tonics and goodness only knows how many bottles of champagne -- a staff member made an intonation to me that maybe I should be chasing after the bridesmaid. His points were clear and his words were far more colorful than that.

"And I grabbed the staff member sitting next to me and I said, 'What I really ought to be doing is frakking you,' and then tossled the guy's hair and left, went to my room, because I knew the party was getting to a point where I shouldn't be there."

"Was that inappropriate of me? Absolutely."

That is Massa's side of the story, but it may or may not end there: Politico reports (in the same artlcie) that a Massa aide says the congressman has been engaged in inappropriate behavior "for eight months."

Sticking to Massa's description--how bad is it? Should it be enough to cost a congressman his job?

The House Code of Official Conduct does not define sexual harassment, but bars members from discriminating on the basis of sex; the House Ethics Manual places sexual harassment within the scope of sex discrimination. Improper sexual advances are not okay. But the letter of the law is not necessarily the issue here: the Code of Official conduct requires that a member "conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House."

Perhaps more importantly, Massa's resignation, which will happen late Monday afternoon, has little to do with the rules or official findings of the Ethics committee. It is voluntary, and Massa said he's leaving because of a cancer scare--not because of the complaint to the Ethics committee; but on Sunday, he alleged he's being pushed out by Democratic leaders.

What's more interesting is whether what Massa described legitimately constitutes sexual harassment. From Massa's telling, it does not sound like a credible sexual advance; it sounds more like a joke, and less like he was seriously angling for sexual involvement with the staffer. The sexual orientation of the staffer would be an important bit of context; jokes can constitute harassment, too.

Is it any better that Massa made this remark, according to his account, at a drunken wedding party, in response to the staffer's own lewd comments? Did the staffer's insinuations about the bridesmaid make it okay for Massa to respond in lewd kind?

And does a member of Congress, or any boss, for that matter--regardless of his surroundings--need to hold himself to a higher standard than that? According to the House's own code of conduct, the answer seems to be yes. And if the comment did, in fact, make the staffer uncomfortable in his work environment, or put him in an odd position with his boss, that's an important criterion.

I won't pretend to know the answers to these questions in theory. If the allegations did contribute to Massa's resignation, then the questions have been answered for us in practice. Expect more information to come out as Massa bows out of Congress and the Ethics panel continues to look into what happened.

Thumbnail photo credit: Neeta Lind/flickr