The 2001 disappearance of Chandra Levy helped me learn one of the most-valuable lessons of my journalism career. Levy interned at the Federal Bureau of Prisons and had an affair with former Rep. Gary Condit (D-CA). She went missing in the spring of 2001 and was presumed dead. The police and media concluded (incorrectly) that Condit killed her. The tale commanded the news in Washington the way few other stories have.
Bored on a slow night at work one evening, I trolled the net, reading about Levy and Condit. I eventually stumbled onto Condit’s Congressional website. And there I discovered a delicious twist: Condit’s page included a link which described how someone could apply to become an intern in his office. And the lead sentence in Condit’s official biography included this gem: “Life in politics has been anything but dull for Gary Condit.”
Granted, Levy never interned for Condit. But for the second time in three years, Washington hyperventilated over canoodling between an intern and a powerful politician. And this time, the intern was dead.
The items on Condit’s webpage didn’t shed any more light into the crime. But they provided nuggets of irony during what was already a news conflagration. And my digital prospecting rewarded me with a bullion cube of news that no one else had.
The journalism lesson? If a lawmaker becomes embroiled in a scandal, scour their websites. You never know what paradoxes you might find.
For instance, the Justice Department indicted former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) on a host of criminal charges. I then discovered Stevens penned a $100,000 earmark for “rodent control.”
Cops in Minneapolis busted former Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) for lewd conduct in an airport restroom stall. So I checked out Craig’s webpage to see if he had ever given a speech, say, to the National Association of Bathrooms.
Which brings us to Monday’s resignation of former Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY).
These lawmakers may be gone. But their websites can leave behind a treasure trove of digital artifacts.
The Clerk of the House of Representatives will now seize control of Massa’s office. Employees of the former Congressman may continue to work there, under the supervision of the Clerk. The office can’t take political stances. But aides can continue to give constituents information about legislation and help them with issues involving federal agencies.
And the Clerk will also take down Massa’s website.
So before the Clerk got to the webpage, I took a gander.
The former Congressman’s website featured a picture of Massa, pitched before an American flag. To Massa’s right was a picture of a green, hand-painted sign reading “Welcome to the Village of Clifton Springs.” Behind that was a picture of a lake and some red barns. The seal of the U.S. Naval was posted in the right-hand corner of the home page.
And then I unearthed a pearl. A link ran along the right side of the page. It said: “Ask Eric Anything.”
The questions I have for Eric Massa….
You really resigned because you used foul language around the office? Do you expect us to believe that? What did you say? Who did you allegedly sexually harass and how? Do you stand by your claim last week that these charges are “totally false?” Do you really think the House Democratic leadership set you up? Why would the House Democratic leadership care to retaliate against you for voting against the health care bill? Why didn’t they retaliate against the nearly 40 other Democrats who also voted no? Isn’t that paranoid to think they’d come after you? Why do you have so much antipathy for White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel? Was Emanuel right when he helped you campaign in 2006 and warned you against sounding so “angry” during your stump speeches? Was your daughter right when she said in 2006 that you “always sound angry?” What will you do now? Can you tell us more about your recurrence of cancer?
I hope to score some answers.
There were other jewels on the website, too.
The Massa scandal broke on March 3. That same day, Massa posted a press release about former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY). Rangel stepped aside from his chairmanship on March 3 due to an ethics probe.
“I think Congressman Rangel is doing the right thing by stepping down as the chair of the Ways and Means Committee while he is under investigation from the Ethics Committee. I look forward to seeing the final results of this investigation before making any further determinations,” reads Massa’s statement on Rangel.
Of course, the Ethics Committee had already been studying Massa’s conduct for some time when he weighed-in on Rangel. And Massa said last week he thought the ethics issue concerned a fundraising letter, not sexual harassment.
Just a couple of days before that, Massa’s staff posted another press release, ranking him as “one of the most centrist members of Congress.”
The release noted that Massa was “proud of my record of focusing on creating jobs, reducing the deficit and cutting taxes.”
Another press release touted how Massa teamed with Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH) to push the State Department to purchase American-made crystal. The government had just announced it had awarded stemware contracts to a Swedish firm.
“At a time when our country is in recession, I think we should be focusing on saving American jobs rather than offering no-bid contracts to foreign companies,” Massa said.
Combine those press releases and you don’t exactly get the portrait of a lawmaker who planned to resign, let alone retire. And initially last week, Massa contended he was retiring because of cancer.
On March 1, Massa published a press release that “condemned” Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) for his filibuster of a temporary extension of unemployment insurance.
“Let me be very clear, Senator Jim Bunning’s obstructionism is the epitome of what’s wrong in Washington,” Massa wrote.
Massa’s latest public schedule, posted on the web in mid-February, appeared hectic. He spoke at Campbell-Savona High School on February 12 and took questions from students. Later that same morning, he toured a software manufacturer in Horseheads, NY. On February 15, he met with senior citizens in Olean, NY. He visited a cabinet manufacturer in Ellicottville, NY. He also attuned the Cattaraugus County Town Supervisors Meeting.
The schedule indicated that the press was welcome to attend most of these meetings. Again, lawmakers representing competitive seats like Massa’s are usually aggressive about posting their itinerary and courting media coverage if they’re seeking re-election.
Massa’s website included a lot of extraneous info, too. Some Twitter messages. A section on Congress for kids, a link to learn about H1N1 flu and how to contribute to earthquake relief efforts in Haiti.
In a way, rifling through Massa’s website is a stark testament on how quickly priorities can change. In other respects, Massa’s website reveals the efforts taken by Congressional staff to craft a narrative about the former Congressman and invent a reality. A reality which may or may not exist.
But Massa’s curious departure from Capitol Hill leaves a lot of questions. Unanswered questions that stand in stark contrast to the appearance of openness and access suggested by the webpage.
“Ask Eric anything,” the website prompts.
And soon, you won’t even be able to do that. As the Clerk of the House will take Massa’s website offline.