Just when it looked as though former Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY) couldn’t possibly create any more headaches for Democrats in Congress, the FBI and Department of Justice find yet another way for Tickle Me Eric to reach for the Tylenol 3. The Washington Post reports that a new probe into corruption of a more pedestrian sort has begun, this time looking into thousands of dollars of payments from Massa to the man who became his chief accuser:
Federal authorities have launched a public corruption investigation into events surrounding former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.), according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
The FBI and Justice Department prosecutors appear to be focusing their preliminary inquiry on large payments Massa’s campaign made last month to his top aide and to renew the lease for the congressman’s personal car — within days of his announcement he would not seek reelection. …
On March 3, Massa announced that he was retiring amid reports that the House ethics committee was investigating allegations he sexually harassed and groped his young male staffers.
The following day, Massa’s campaign paid $40,000 to his chief of staff Joe Racalto, a critical witness in the ethics probe, The Post reported last week. The campaign also paid $39,000 to renew a car lease for a campaign vehicle he drives.
Massa has said he did not authorize the $40,000 payment, and he has accused Racalto of telling the campaign comptroller, incorrectly, that the fee had been approved. Racalto has said he was owed the $40,000 under a long-standing agreement to be paid for ongoing political work on the campaign.
Why would this interest the FBI and DoJ? Racalto kept Massa’s secrets from the Ethics Committee and also from Democratic leadership for over a year. In any ethics investigation, Racalto could be a key witness to determine whether Massa broke laws or at least rules governing the conduct of Congressmen towards interns and staff. A sudden payment of $40,000 to a potential witness certainly looks suspicious, which is a good reason for Massa to insist that he didn’t authorize it.
However, Massa’s denial strains credulity a bit. What kind of organization forks over $40,000 in cash and another $39,000 in a car lease just on the recipient’s say-so? Not even Congress is that sloppy about its money (well, our money). A campaign has to comply with FEC regulations on expenditures, as the Florida GOP discovered itself today, and it seems unlikely that this much cash could move without Massa’s explicit approval.
Some might point out that Massa’s resignation put him beyond the Ethics Committee’s reach, but the committee itself doesn’t necessarily agree. They voted today to create a new subcommittee to investigate Massa’s activities over the past 15 months. While they can’t punish Massa, they can punish other House Democrats and their staffers who had any knowledge of the abuse Massa inflicted on his staff without taking action to stop it. That could easily extend to the highly irregular payments to the man who should have been their star witness.