A concerted effort to spread allegations of misconduct against Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who is vying for the Democratic nomination for Congress in Massachusetts’s 1st Congressional District against incumbent Rep. Richard Neal, was more extensive than has previously been reported, targeting progressive organizations that had endorsed the primary insurgent as well as journalists for months before the the claims finally landed in a college newspaper earlier this month.
Vague allegations of misconduct roiled the primary contest between Morse, a 31-year-old progressive, and Neal, a three-decade incumbent who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Accusations that Morse made students in the UMass College Democrats group uncomfortable and pursued them after political events formed the basis for the College Democrats of Massachusetts, or CDMA, banning him from future events, a decision first made public by the UMass Amherst newspaper Daily Collegian on August 7.
Morse readily admitted to having used dating apps like Tinder and Grindr to find dates and notes that makes him no different than any other young gay man in America. “I won’t apologize for being gay and using gay dating apps and going on dates with other adult men,” Morse has said. “I won’t apologize for being human.”
Reporting from The Intercept in the wake of the letter’s publication quickly showed, however, that the allegations were part of a scheme by at least two members of UMass College Democrats leadership, Andrew Abramson and Timothy Ennis, to entrap and take down Morse, that had been contemplated for nearly a year, with Ennis hoping to curry favor with Neal. The CDMA in early August sent a letter to Morse informing him he was no longer welcome at events, a policy that the CDMA had put in place in June but had not made official or public, sources in the group told The Intercept.
But the quest to damage Morse’s reputation was in motion months before — at least as early as April. An email was sent to reporter Grace Panetta late that month from the address “firstname.lastname@example.org,” claiming that the allegations were an open secret and that the story was ready to be told.
“Sad but true,” begins the email to Panetta, obtained by The Intercept, sent April 29.
Alex Morse has a bad habit of using his position as a popular politician in Western Mass to hook up with college kids at UMass 10+ years younger than him. It’s creepy and the power dynamics are terrible: most of the people he tries to hook up with look up to him and are involved in activism or other political work with him.
There’s a story to be told here and if you can get screenshots of his private Insta story or statements on the record from the folks below, it will totally upend the MA-01 race. It’s already an open secret within certain circles in the area, but just hasn’t been covered yet. To start I recommend reaching out to:
The letter then lists three names — Abramson, Ennis, and a third student — with contact information for all three. The note ends by including the email address for the CDMA president, Hayley Fleming, for “[o]nce you already have someone on the record.”
Panetta didn’t bite. In June, Politico reporter Alex Thompson got a similar tip that involved Instagram messages but didn’t publish a story until the Daily Collegian ran its version in August. In between, the effort to smear Morse continued unabated as progressive groups were approached by anonymous sources spreading rumors and innuendos about the mayor.
Primaries for Progress, a project of the polling firm Data for Progress, received an anonymous message in late June about the Morse allegations claiming that the mayor’s “weird predatorial behavior” was “extremely alarming.” That letter’s writer identified themselves as “a staunch progressive (socialist, activist, also queer),” and claimed that they and their peers intended to vote for Neal because of Morse’s behavior.
“I think if some of this comes out, worse allegations will surface,” the letter said of Morse’s use of dating apps and Instagram to meet people, adding, “A lot of people are afraid to come forward because no laws were broken, but he was just predatorial and got involved with people that he had an unfair power dynamic with.”
The language of the tip hints at a strategy by those looking to take Morse down, rooted in the hope that “worse allegations will surface” after initial, vague rumors are made public. Often in the case of #MeToo stories, the first allegation will be followed by other survivors willing to come forward once the silence has been broken. The Morse case has not followed that pattern, however, as nobody has yet come forward on the record to make a claim of harm.
The Primaries for Progress team investigated the allegations, they told The Intercept, but found nothing to back up the claims. “The anonymous tip we got seemed like it was from one of the [College Dems] who were acting as free agents trying to entrap Morse,” Primaries for Progress said in a statement.
The LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national organization that focuses on promoting gay and lesbian candidates, heard about the allegations after the group voted to endorse Morse on July 5, according to two sources at the organization, speaking on condition of anonymity. A Victory Fund staffer was contacted by a well-connected Massachusetts political operative who said there were allegations about Morse that would soon come out. The operative told the staffer a number of details that would not come to light for over a month, including that Morse would be officially banned from College Democrat events.
According to the Morse campaign, a Victory Fund senior staffer contacted the mayor and warned him that those opposed to his campaign would do more than end his congressional run — they would destroy his life as well as his career for the sin of going up against the powerful and well-connected Neal. “There was a pattern of every time we received an endorsement from a state or national organization, someone would contact them and inform them that something was in the works behind the scenes on college students,” Morse told The Intercept on Sunday.
On August 14, The Intercept reported, based on documents and call records, as well as accounts from Massachusetts Democratic State Committee and CDMA members, that the Massachusetts Democratic Party leadership acted to assist the students.
Two members of MassDems leadership — chair Gus Bickford and executive director Veronica Martinez — were involved in the effort to promote the smear, recommending CDMA members use the state party’s general counsel, a powerful DNC committee co-chair and grandson of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jim Roosevelt, as a resource in the development of the letter. Roosevelt would take an active role in assisting with the letter, reviewing the content for legal protections, according to a source close to the matter.
Roosevelt’s involvement in the letter’s development makes the state party’s behavior even more troubling, Samuel Biagetti, who is running for state representative in Worcester’s 5th District, told The Intercept, citing Roosevelt’s time as an executive at Tufts Health Plan against a candidate who supports Medicare for All. “I questioned how Roosevelt could be impartial as a powerful member of the DNC and Tufts Health Plan CEO,” Biagetti said.
The letter, some of the students thought, was supposed to be private, and was sent to Morse and his campaign on Thursday, August 6. Morse responded that day. But it was leaked to the Collegian on Friday, August 7, a move that came as a surprise to many CDMA board members who, chat logs show and sources tell The Intercept, still do not know who passed it to the student paper.
Martinez, as reported by The Intercept on Monday, told students to delete communications between her and them last week as The Intercept’s reporting gained steam, though the executive director denied doing so to The Intercept on August 14. Martinez has not replied to further requests for comment.
MassDems have initiated a review of the behavior of the group’s leadership, assigning the task of identifying an impartial investigator to vice chairs Deb Kozikowski and Leon Brathwaite, and Personnel Committee Chair Mark DiSalvo. “The inquiry shall take the time necessary to thoroughly complete although it is our intent that it be completed within 45 days of its assignment,” Kozikowski said in an email to the DSC Thursday.
The timing of the investigation has upset some DSC members, who have said publicly that they want it done before the primary to get all the facts out in the open. One member said that the investigation was unlikely to reveal the full extent of MassDems leadership’s involvement in the scheme. “People are beginning to ask questions like how much we’re going to pay for this, where the money is going to come from, and whether it’ll even be able to tell us anything if they’ve deleted their messages. We can’t afford a vanity exercise,” the DSC member said.
Questions remain for members on the full extent of party leadership’s involvement in the scheme, but one DSC member told The Intercept that they doubted the letter would even have been written if the allegations had been about the incumbent. “I have a hard time believing that if allegations had been brought forward about Congressman Neal, the MassDems leadership wouldn’t have pushed the matter to a phone call instead of a letter and tried to handle them as swiftly and as quietly as possible,” the member said. Morse said that he did not hear from the MassDems leadership about any concerns, either over the phone or by email.
A poll of unknown origin is targeting Morse, using the allegations from CDMA against him and even referring to false elements of the attack, such as accusations that Morse dated his students — an attack that was not made in the CDMA letter or anywhere else. “They said words to the effect that Morse had actually contacted a student he had taught and used salacious language in an effort to solicit sexual favors,” said Jim Palermo, a Southampton, Massachusetts, Democrat who was polled. “I interrupted and said there was no allegation on that.”
Palermo told The Intercept that he admired the young mayor’s openness and refusal to back down from who he is and for being forthcoming about his dating life, though he emphasized that the attacks that led to those comments being made in the first place were unacceptable. “I’m sorry this is happening to him,” said Palermo. “It seems like a smear campaign.”
Western Massachusetts is not accustomed to seeing competitive Democratic primaries. Beginning with the election of 1952, the area had been represented in Congress by Ed Boland, who became a Neal ally. In 1988, Boland decided not to run for a 19th term, but kept that decision secret to nearly everyone but Neal, who used the inside information to begin quietly building a campaign war chest and acquiring signatures to get on the ballot. When Boland stunned the western Massachusetts political world by announcing his retirement, it was Neal who pounced on the ballot and won the election effectively unopposed. It was the same route taken to Congress by Joe Crowley, who similarly was installed unopposed on ballots in Queens, New York, a decade later, as well as by Rep. Dan Lipinski, who was gifted an Illinois seat in that fashion by his father. Both Crowley and Lipinski have since been defeated by insurgent challengers. After the 2010 Census, the state was redistricted — he was moved from the 2nd Congressional District to the 1st — and Neal had to fend off two challengers for the new seat. He faced an underfunded primary challenger from the left in 2018, but otherwise has served a comfortable 16 terms.
The scandal around the MassDems and CDMA coordination has brought outsized national attention and grassroots money to the race. Morse has raised over $400,000 since the scandal broke, the campaign said, far outpacing his previous fundraising numbers, and has released internal polling numbers showing an increasingly narrowing gap between himself and the incumbent. National and progressive groups like Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement have reasserted their backing of his campaign as The Intercept’s reporting revealed the extent of the smear effort. Local endorsements, including a total eight of 11 members of the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, City Council, are pouring in. The progressive insurgent’s candidacy is benefiting from the kind of volunteer energy that was seen earlier this month when activist Cori Bush, in a huge upset, unseated two-decade incumbent Rep. Lacy Clay in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District primary.
With that renewed energy and attention, however, has come a spate of attacks from groups supporting Neal. The Democratic Majority for Israel, a super PAC run by Democratic pollster and American Israel Public Affairs Committee consultant Mark Mellman, has jumped into the race on the side of Neal. DMFI, which previously invested in efforts to protect Rep. Eliot Engel from a successful primary challenge from Jamaal Bowman and relentlessly attacked Sen. Bernie Sanders during his presidential run earlier this year, is running a 30-second spot hitting Morse for absenteeism in school committee meetings.
A version of the same ad was previously run by another super PAC coordinating with DMFI, called American Working Families. Combined, the two super PACs have spent close to a half a million dollars hitting Morse on his education record, which was also the centerpiece of Neal’s debate strategy Monday evening.
The assault, though, could force Neal to defend his own record as mayor, a four-year tenure that left Springfield with a $6.4-million deficit and prosecutors digging into contracts with Neal allies.
Once the eye-popping tab of Neal’s time as mayor became clear, the administration of Gov. Michael Dukakis launched an investigation in 1989 into the deficit’s root causes, drafting former Department of Revenue auditor Newell Cook to lead the inquiry. The resulting document, known as the Cook Report, was brutal, finding the city’s finances in even worse condition than they appeared from the outside.
Cook and his team found that the city employees’ health insurance had been systematically underfunded. “The failure of the City to recognize the ‘true costs’ in its budgets over the past five years is inexplicable,” the report said unsparingly. “Not only was the budget preparation and financial reporting woefully at variance with reality, none of the parties to the City’s fiscal management applied a reasonableness test to the rate of growth of the expense. While for 1986 and 1987 the ‘true costs’ were rising between 20% and 30% per year and the media was full of stories of the rapid increase in health care costs, the City blithely budgeted increases of only 5%.” The city fudged the books, the report explained, and, as a result, more than 850 city workers were cut from the payroll as the city faced bankruptcy, according to a December 13, 1989, article, in the Boston Herald.
Neal was elected mayor of Springfield in 1983 after spending six years on the city council, and quickly began a spending spree that would make him extremely popular. His major priority — “beautifying the city” — involved a widely lauded litter-reduction program and the careful placement of flowers around town, and is still listed as Neal’s premier mayoral accomplishment on his Wikipedia page. Neal racked up huge city bills to contractors, but the problem, which would only come to light after Neal left his post as mayor to become a member of Congress, was that the city didn’t actually have the money he was spending.
Part of that was a result of the no-bid contract Neal had signed with Paul Tinsley, a close associate of Neal’s and founder of the Insurance Cost Control consultancy, which had been hired by the city to bring down insurance costs. In 1989, the city council voted to open an investigation into the $480,000 ICC contract after the spiraling deficit crept into sight. That investigation ultimately revealed that ICC had done nothing to save the city on health insurance costs. Tinsley would be convicted by Attorney General Scott Harshbarger on public corruption charges in 1994. As part of a far-reaching probe in the early 1990s into corruption in Springfield, which included Neal’s time as mayor, a Hampden County grand jury looked into contracts the city let out to businesses connected to Charlie Kingston, a longtime ally of Neal’s, but brought no charges.
Ultimately, the responsibility of cleaning up after Neal’s mess fell on the city’s first female mayor, Mary Hurley, who struggled over her brief two-year term to balance the city budget. (While Neal has attacked Alex Morse for Holyoke schools being placed under receivership, the entire city of Springfield was given special oversight by the state beginning the year after Neal left office).
Neal’s penchant for loose financial management continued in Congress. Despite leaving Springfield behind in 1989, Neal’s efforts to preserve his public image took a hit in the years immediately following his departure for Washington. In 1992, during the House banking scandal in which hundreds of members of Congress were caught writing bad checks through their House accounts — effectively utilizing interest-free loans at taxpayers’ expense — Neal made headlines for bouncing 87 checks, earning the nickname “Rubber Richie.” Neal claimed, “At no time was I ever notified there was an overdraft.”
The new congressman began paying fealty to the banking industry that would later pay his campaign bills not long after arriving in Washington. In the early ’90s, he opposed an effort by then-Rep. Ed Markey to pass the Government Securities Offering Enforcement Act of 1991, which aimed to prevent the misleading marketing of government-backed securities. In 1995, Neal voted for the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, which attempted to bar shareholders from suing companies for securities fraud. He then voted yes on an override of Bill Clinton’s veto of the bill, and in 2000 voted yes again on the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, opening the floodgates for investors to engage in the kind of risky derivatives trading that led to the 2008 crash. In 2002, amid the fallout of the Enron scandal, Neal voted against an amendment to the Corporate and Auditing Accountability, Responsibility, and Transparency Act, raised by Dennis Kucinich, which would have cleared the way for regular audits of publicly traded companies by the SEC.
By 2008, Neal’s two-decade war against Wall Street regulations finally caught up with America’s middle class as the Great Recession swept the country. After all his work cutting loose the last chains tethering Wall Street to some semblance of government oversight, Neal stepped into the spotlight to vote yes on the $700 billion in bank bailouts.
Neal has received hundreds of thousands in donations throughout his career from officials and PACs at the very same banks over his career. He’s taken $12,500 from AIG, $112,000 from Bank of America, $78,500 from Citigroup, $53,000 from JPMorgan Chase, $56,500 from Morgan Stanley, $36,000 from Goldman Sachs, and $79,500 from Capital One.
But Neal didn’t stop in 2008. In 2016, Neal sponsored a bill to weaken the Obama-era protections preventing financial advisers from steering people with savings accounts into risky investments. As the Globe then reported, Neal’s bill would have protected MassMutual — the representative’s single largest donor — from the consumer protection regulations.
During Monday’s debate, Neal attacked Morse for saying that he would have voted against the CARES Act. But Morse had good reason to take a stand against the $2.2 trillion bailout: The bill that Neal helped write is something of a replay of 2008, this time with even higher stakes. It throws cash hand over fist to bail out CEOs, without any guarantees for the essential workers struggling to make ends meet in the midst of a global pandemic.
Nurses at hospitals across the 1st Congressional District are being forced to use vacation time for coronavirus-related sick leave, face 12-hour shift requirements, work with up to 50 percent cuts to cleaning staff crucial to lifesaving hospital sanitation, and report unsafe working conditions, which have continued since the American Prospect reported on them in June:
Neal benefits directly from these hospital’s windfalls. CEOs like Mark Keroack of Baystate Health have donated thousands to the hospital lobby which is also a major backer of Neal. Public records show that Keroack donated $4,500 to Neal directly, and another $3,000 to the American Hospital Association, which in turn has donated $7,000 to his campaign. From just doctors groups and hospital associations, Neal has raised well over $200,000 in the past two election cycles. As one hand washes the other at the executive level, nurses I spoke with throughout western Massachusetts report layoffs, intimidation, lack of PPE, and unsafe working conditions, including being forced to work between COVID wards and general hospital populations without adequate time or supplies to safely disinfect.
Neal’s alliance with the hospitals and Wall Street reached its zenith in September 2019, when he cashed nearly $50,000 worth of campaign checks from executives at Blackstone, which runs a line of business that profits heavily from so-called surprise billing. Just because a hospital is in a certain insurance network doesn’t mean that all of its doctors are: If someone visits an out-of-network doctor in that hospital, Blackstone can then charge exorbitant out-of-network costs. The process is so outrageous that a bipartisan group in Congress came together last year to end it. But at the last minute, and not long after the funding from Blackstone, Neal claimed jurisdiction for the Ways and Means Committee that he chairs — on the shakiest of grounds — and presented a counterproposal that blew up the negotiations, startling those involved.
On Monday, members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association are set to picket Mercy Hospital in Springfield, one of the many local employers Neal claimed to be fighting to protect with the passage of the CARES Act. Their main complaints are unsafe working conditions, unfair compensation, and unfair bargaining practices. The nurses have endorsed Morse.
When reached for comment, Kate Norton, a spokesperson for Neal’s campaign, wrote, “Richie Neal has been a leader and a champion for the people in this district, consistently delivering on COVID-19 relief, access to healthcare, and equity and opportunity. He’s fighting Donald Trump every day to protect working families everywhere.”
As the race speeds toward the September 1 primary, Neal’s record is starting to cost him back home. Six-figure ad buys launched by Fight Corporate Monopolies have excoriated the representative for his Blackstone affiliation and his efforts to kill surprise medical billing reform, while major endorsers like the Working Families Party, Sunrise Movement, and Justice Democrats have jumped back into the race to enthusiastically support Morse. The two will meet Thursday evening for their second debate.