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Massa Directed 'Sexual' Conduct Toward Gay Staff, Attorney Says

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Former Rep. Eric Massa speaks during a Fox News interview March 10. (FNC)

Disgraced former Rep. Eric Massa stacked his staff with male aides during the year before he was shamed out of Congress and was known to single out his openly gay staffers for the brunt of his "sexual comments" and touching, the attorney for one of those aides told FoxNews.com. 

Based on the attorney's description, the New York congressman hired an unusually high number of openly gay staff members. Alexis Rickher, who is representing a former aide who filed a harassment complaint against Massa last month, said that seven of the nine staffers in the Democrat's Washington office were men, and three of them were openly gay. Massa also brought on a gay male intern, Rickher said.

She could not speak to why Massa made such hiring decisions, but she said it appeared he had a "propensity to hire just men" and that her client found that most of Massa's inappropriate behavior was directed "toward the openly gay men." 

The former aide's case could shed new light on how Massa ran his office in the months before his behavior came to the attention of Democratic leadership and eventually led to his resignation. 

Rickher described Massa as out of control, running an office in which aides were afraid to confront him directly for fear of losing their jobs. They reported the behavior to Massa's chief of staff and deputy chief of staff, but "if anything, his behavior got worse" after that, she said. 

Rickher said the inappropriate conduct started just two months into Massa's term, in March of 2009, and escalated from there. 

She said the conduct started in the spring with "highly sexualized comments" about oral sex and other topics. It was initially vague and not directed toward anyone in particular, she said, but in the summer it "began to be more focused comments on my client's and other staffers' bodies." 

From there, Rickher said Massa started touching his staff in "private areas." She would not get into detail about where Massa allegedly touched his aides, but she said it was "clearly sexualized." 

Rickher's client's complaint, filed March 23, seeks legal action under the Congressional Accountability Act, which extends standard workplace protections to congressional employees. 

Rickher would not describe the suit in detail nor would she identify her client -- other than to say he is gay and worked for Massa in the spring of 2009 and through the rest of the year. 

Massa resigned in early March amid mounting sexual harassment allegations and anecdotes, prompting the House Ethics Committee to probe how Democratic leaders in Congress handled reports of misconduct. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office reportedly learned about the concerns as early as October 2009. 

Recent reports about Massa prompted House Minority Leader John Boehner this week to renew his call for the committee to empanel an official investigative subcommittee to scrutinize Democratic leaders' handling of the problem. Boehner, for the second time since Massa resigned, introduced a resolution Wednesday calling for a full investigation into what House leaders knew, but the House voted 235-157 to refer it to committee -- meaning the ethics panel can choose to ignore the measure.

Boehner's office accused Democrats of trying to sweep the issue "under the rug." 

"It is time for the ethics committee to heed this call and launch an investigation to determine what Democratic leaders knew about former Rep. Massa's behavior, and what they did to protect the staff who were being subjected to this predator," Boehner said in a statement Tuesday. 

Rickher said Massa was known for having a "volatile temper," and so staff members were hesitant to broach the conduct directly with him. 

"When someone like Eric Massa is running an office and can't be controlled, the victims are the staffers who are subject to his sexual harassment," she said. 

According to an article in The Washington Post earlier this week, Massa's chief of staff, Joe Racalto, said he tried to prevent Massa from being alone with young male aides and that Massa denied improper behavior when confronted. 

Racalto's attorney could not be reached for comment. 

Massa could not be reached at home. His former office in Washington referred reporter questions to the former aide's attorney. 

Massa, in an interview with Fox News shortly after he left office, admitted to groping his staff, but described any such encounters as horseplay, and not sexual. 

A U.S. Naval Academy graduate who served in the Navy for more than two decades, Massa suggested the rough-housing was typical of people who have served in the Navy and that his behavior was taken out of "context." 

He also claimed that the incident that ultimately led to his resignation was his behavior at a staff member's wedding reception on New Year's Eve, when he apparently made a lewd comment toward another member of his staff. 

But Rickher said the incident that forced Massa to leave was his attempt to set up a dinner date in February with a local male bartender he met on the sidelines of a funeral for a Marine. She said that incident was reported to leadership. 

"There was a date set up which finally sparked a realization that this was a problem," she said.

Michael Cole, a spokesman for the gay rights group The Human Rights Campaign, said it's unclear whether, on a national level, homosexual employees endure harassment more than their heterosexual colleagues -- but that it's unacceptable no matter where it's directed. 

"There's no place in the workplace for that type of harassment," he said, when asked about the Massa complaints. "People go to work whether they're gay or straight to do their jobs, and harassment is in and of itself unwelcome and shouldn't be tolerated, whether it's with gay people or straight people."