Report alleges Dems chairman broke party rules in Morse-Neal race 

  • Massachusetts Democratic State Committee Chairman Gus Bickford GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/6/2020 3:58:19 PM

HOLYOKE — An independent investigation has found that the state Democratic Party chairman broke party rules against interfering in a contested primary election by encouraging university students to send a letter to 1st Congressional District candidate and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse raising sexual misconduct accusations against him.

The Democratic State Committee, or DSC, hired former state senator Cheryl Jacques of Northampton to put together the confidential report after the UMass Amherst student newspaper, just weeks before Morse’s primary election against incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, reported on a letter College Democrats of Massachusetts sent to Morse. The letter anonymously accused him of using his “position of power” as a politician and university lecturer to pursue sex with college students. However, reporting in The Intercept soon after suggested party officials may have pushed the accusations and that they had originated with students seeking to smear Morse.

Jacques’ report concluded that DSC staff did not initiate the idea of college Democrats writing a letter to Morse, but that party Chairman Gus Bickford encouraged students to send the letter before the election and to talk about the accusations with a Politico reporter. That behavior, Jacques concluded, broke a party bylaw about participating in a primary contest.

“Do it before the election,” the students recalled Bickford saying when they suggested sending a private letter to Morse — a phrase Bickford told Jacques he doesn’t remember saying. Two student leaders with College Democrats of Massachusetts, or CDMA, told Jacques that Bickford suggested to them Politico reporter Alex Thompson was a “trusted source” and that “if you don’t go on the record with him, he won’t write the story.”

Bickford’s comments about Thompson, Jacques said, indicate “he was encouraging students to talk to the reporter on the record and to do so prior to the election.”

Bickford also “may very well have violated the spirit” of the party’s bylaw when he discouraged Morse from running, Jacques found. The two met in the spring of 2019 at a South Hadley restaurant, where Bickford told Morse that running against Neal, D-Springfield, would “just be a distraction” and “a money drain” as the party sought to defeat President Donald Trump. The report says that Bickford suggested Morse instead run for lieutenant governor if Attorney General Maura Healey runs for governor in 2022.

Bickford, who is running for reelection as party chairman this month, said in a statement that the students had been in contact with Politico and others before the party becoming aware of their concerns. He said he did not suggest the students send a letter before election day, and characterized his involvement in the episode as earnestly attempting to help the students and connect them with the guidance they were seeking.

“I do strongly disagree with the baseless statement that by commenting on the credibility of a well-known national political reporter, I somehow implied or suggested that material be leaked to that reporter,” Bickford said. “This goes counter to the finding in the report that I in fact expressed my preference that the students speak with the campaign manager directly, and not draft a letter.”

Jacques’ report also calls into question the role that attorney Jim Roosevelt, a major player in the state and national Democratic Party, played in the episode. Party Executive Director Veronica Martinez eventually put CDMA leadership in touch with Roosevelt as the students contemplated how to move forward with their complaints against Morse. Roosevelt made minor edits to the students’ letter to Morse, Jacques reported.

The report then quotes former CDMA President Hayley Fleming and Andrew Abramson, a member of the CDMA executive board, who both said that Roosevelt told them to “leak the letter” to the Politico reporter. Roosevelt, however, vehemently denied telling the students to leak the letter — a sentiment echoed by Roosevelt’s wife, who told Jacques she heard the conversation.

“Because there are conflicting credible and corroborated accounts, I am unable to substantiate whether Jim instructed Hayley to ‘leak’ the letter,” Jacques concluded.

Fleming did not respond immediately to an email requesting comment Friday afternoon. In a phone interview, Roosevelt said that he advised CDMA leadership to show their full board Morse's response to their letter, but that doing so created the possibility of somebody on the board leaking that response. He said that he has spent 30 years advising state and local Democratic Party committees and has always remained neutral.

Students had discussed rumors of Morse dating college students for several years, with several describing instances of Morse flirting with them on social media, Jacques noted. She concluded that DSC staff had no role in planting those rumors to “derail Morse.” Nor did she find any evidence that party leaders played any role in generating inquiries into those rumors by Politico, the progressive think tank Data for Progress and the consulting firm Slingshot Strategies in the month of July.

College Democrats reach out

As those inquiries were coming in, Fleming emailed Bickford on July 25, telling him she wanted to speak about “an important matter regarding sexual misconduct by a high-profile candidate.” On July 28, Fleming and other CDMA board members spoke with Martinez and Bickford about how to handle the situation, Jacques reported.

During that conversation, Bickford initially suggested the students speak with Morse’s campaign manager, but after the students said they didn’t like that idea and suggested sending a private letter, the report concluded that Bickford said “go with that one” and “do it before the election.” Bickford and Martinez did not refer the students to UMass Amherst’s legal counsel, Title IX officer or dean of students, instead telling the group they would confirm with Roosevelt about next steps, Jacques found.

On July 29, Bickford and Martinez spoke with Roosevelt and attorney Andrea Kramer. Because the CDMA leaders hadn’t investigated whether the allegations were true, Kramer advised that the students should not talk to the media, and if they did write a letter to make it short and without too much detail. She reportedly was concerned about the possibility of the students slandering Morse.

Ultimately, the party connected the students with Roosevelt — the former CEO of Tufts Health Plan — because he never charged the DSC for his services, whereas Kramer sometimes charged.

As the press began digging into the episode and the possibility of party involvement, state party communications manager Allison Mitchell told news outlets, including the Gazette, that party officials “referred the individuals expressing these concerns to an attorney who volunteers as legal counsel to the Party, and we had no further involvement.”

That, Jacques concluded, was “not honest.” Martinez had continued to communicate with Fleming after referring CDMA to Roosevelt, Jacques reported. Fleming said Martinez also suggested she delete any text or phone records between them “in case they get into the wrong hands.” However, Jacques concluded that Martinez did not advise Fleming how to deal with the press and did not have inappropriate communication with Fleming.

“The optics of ongoing communication between the two is poor, however, I find nothing nefarious in the communications itself,” Jacques wrote. “Rather the communications reveal Veronica [Martinez, the party’s executive director] providing Hayley [Fleming, former CDMA president] with moral support during what was clearly a very stressful period of time for Hayley.”

In a statement, Martinez told the Gazette that she has sought to lift up young women since joining the party as executive director. She said that throughout the situation, she wanted to support a young college student who was in over her head.

“I made explicitly clear to this student that I could not provide advice in my professional capacity or as it directly relates to this situation, and I did not,” Martinez said. “I’ve also never directed anyone to delete information from their phone, and during the course of this review, I willingly provided many pages of communications between myself and many others.”

In her report, Jacques noted that despite party bylaws calling for the creation of a state Judicial Council, none has been created. That body could have helped party staff determine how to respond to CDMA’s concerns.

In her recommendations, Jacques suggests that the party adopt a code of ethical practices and create a Judicial Council. That council, she said, should be charged with establishing clear protocols about what people are prohibited from doing in a contested primary and guidelines for how party leadership, staff and volunteers should handle matters like misconduct, illegal or unethical behavior.

The report was released less than a week before state party members are to vote for their chair. Bickford is running for reelection against two-time former statewide candidate Mike Lake and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Bob Massie. DSC members will cast their ballots during a state committee meeting on Nov. 12.

Though the Democratic Party holds supermajorities in both chambers of the state Legislature, it has come under fire during Bickford’s tenure for failing to take on Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who coasted to reelection in 2018. Bickford was first elected party chairman in 2016.

UMass Amherst has also hired an independent investigator — former federal prosecutor Natashia Tidwell — to investigate the claims against Morse. After the UMass Amherst student newspaper, The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, published its story about the CDMA letter to Morse, the 31-year-old mayor apologized to anyone who he might have made feel uncomfortable while maintaining that he had done nothing wrong.

“What I won’t apologize for is being young and openly gay and single and engaging in consensual activity with other men,” he said at the time.

In a statement, Morse said Friday that the report made it clear that the state party “inappropriately interfered to harm my campaign for Congress and aid Congressman Neal’s reelection effort.” He said that the state party can be a model for how the nation can move forward, but that under its current leadership that is not possible.

“As the election for chair quickly approaches, it has become abundantly clear that the party is in desperate need of new leadership,” Morse said. “If we want to build a state where people like me — young, queer and working class — can run, win and lead, we can and must do better.”

Neal spokesman Peter Panos said Friday that the congressman had not seen the report and thus could not comment. He referred the Gazette to comments Neal made in August, saying he would not tolerate his name being associated with homophobic attacks and that anyone implying his campaign was involved in the accusations against Morse are “flat wrong.”

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