A recently released report by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has added new evidence of the state Democratic Party’s involvement in the public attack on Alex Morse just ahead of his primary against Rep. Richard Neal. It also found that Morse, formerly an adjunct professor at the school, did not violate university policies, yet the report still delved deeply into Morse’s private dating life with other adults.
In early August, just a few weeks prior to the election against Neal, chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, a number of college students made vague accusations of impropriety against Morse, the youngest and first openly gay mayor of Holyoke.
The involvement of state party officials, who coordinated with the Massachusetts College Democrats to accuse Morse of sexual impropriety, was first revealed by The Intercept and later confirmed by an internal review by the Massachusetts Democratic Party. The new report, however, includes emails and text messages indicating that party attorney Jim Roosevelt took a more active role in the dissemination of the smear than previously known. It also reveals that party leaders were more involved in walking students through media and legal strategies than they had previously admitted. In an interview with The Intercept, Roosevelt denied the allegations; Mass Dems Executive Director Veronica Martinez implied in an email that the new report exonerated party leadership.
The UMass report, issued on January 13 by the law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP, found not only no evidence of wrongdoing by Morse, but also that he was not accused of anything that would have violated the school policy. Still, the report left open a vague possibility that the mayor had violated “the University’s general expectations for the conduct of its employees.”
Morse, who has acknowledged having consensual relationships with students in the area, has never been accused of inappropriate relationships with students he taught. The university only bars relationships between faculty and students whom they supervise or teach — not all students generally. In a statement, UMass said that the school is reviewing the investigation’s findings to see if revisions to its consensual relationships policy are warranted. Morse, over the course of several years through fall 2019, taught a once-a-week class on government. There are nearly 30,000 students enrolled at UMass Amherst.
The university said publicly that Morse declined to participate in the investigation, but did not mention that the reason was because the university told him it was not investigating any particular allegation. Rather, the school launched a general probe into his dating life. Given that there were no specific allegations to investigate, Morse told The Intercept that he is considering legal action against the university for its decision to conduct an investigation into his behavior.
“The investigation was launched to conclude whether or not I violated policy or whether or not there was necessary evidence to support a Title IX investigation,” Morse said. “That was the scope of the investigation and the conclusions were reached that neither were met. So anything else is erroneous and irrelevant and an intrusion on my personal life.”
Morse added that the report relies on the word of “UMass Democrats that have been documented to have a clear agenda” against him.
Investigators made a detailed exploration into the psychology of the students who ultimately launched the attack on Morse, saying that a key figure in the scandal did not find his interactions online with Morse remotely problematic until other students convinced him in hindsight that they were. A second student also told investigators that he considered his interactions platonic and innocent but that they took on a different connotation when put in the context of rumors being spread by other students.
The report’s authors included trivial information they had collected. “Witness Three reports that he was later told by other students that Morse gave him a ‘look’ when he entered the [October] event (indicating romantic or sexual interest). Witness Three did not observe anything of that nature,” the report found fit to inform the public.
Matt Walsh, a member of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee and a board member of the Bay State Stonewall Democrats, said the exoneration of Morse is welcomed, but that in his view, the manner in which the report was written lingered on salacious details and sensationalized the mayor’s private life.
“I expected an official investigative report by a state university to be an objective assessment of facts, not a tabloid-style gossip piece,” said Walsh. “I’m glad UMass cleared Morse of wrongdoing, but they could have done so without legitimizing homophobic tropes that paint gay men as ‘creepy’ for engaging in consensual relationships.”
The allegations against Morse — first reported by the UMass Daily Collegian newspaper — relied on Tinder and Instagram messages from Morse to students at UMass over the past few years. Members of the College Democrats of Massachusetts and the UMass College Democrats accused Morse in a leaked letter of abusing his power as mayor and a part-time instructor at the school to solicit sex from young men who were students on campus, and decided to ban him from future events. But the UMass report’s findings do not show any impropriety — and, if anything, indicate that Morse was careful to stay away from even the hint of abuse of power or inappropriate relationships.
The Intercept’s previous reporting revealed that some students had planned to entrap and expose Morse in order to do political damage to the mayor and secure themselves internships with Neal. Neal has denied any involvement in the scheme. Campaign spokesperson Peter Panos told The Intercept in an email that the latest report makes the congressman’s innocence clear.
“This report confirms what Chairman Neal has always said, that he and his staff had nothing to do with these allegations,” said Panos. “We commend the University for their thorough investigation into the facts.”
The report doesn’t conclude anything either way on Neal’s involvement, but does note that there is no evidence of it.
Screenshots of text messages uncovered by investigators show that students also saw Morse’s position as a mayor and congressional candidate as a possible avenue for volunteer and internship opportunities.
The report notes that Morse popped up as a “potential match” on Tinder for some students 18 and up, though most students did not receive an indication of interest from the mayor; in Tinder parlance, he did not “swipe right” on their profiles. Witness One in September 2019 “matched” with Morse on Tinder months after first meeting him at a spring event hosted by the UMass College Democrats.
As the report explains:
The two exchanged messages via Tinder, but did not arrange to meet in person. After the exchange of a couple of messages over a few days, Witness One sent Morse a photo from the event where they first met and asked of Morse,“now, do you remember me?”
Morse replied “yes,” and promptly un-matched with Witness One.
Witness One was not made uncomfortable by the interaction, he told the investigators, but after hearing from peers that the age difference between them was problematic, “he became discomfited by the fact that his attraction to Morse stemmed from the ‘allure’ of Morse’s role as a Mayor, which Witness One considered a position of power.”
Holyoke, a town of just 40,000 where Morse served as mayor after being elected at the age of 21, is a 30-minute drive from UMass Amherst.
Morse and Witness One connected later on Instagram and exchanged messages for several weeks. Around Halloween, Morse messaged Witness One to tell him the costume photo he posted was “cute.” Witness One replied, “Thanks!” Witness One told investigators that he found the message flirtatious.
Witness Three met Morse at an October 2019 event after the mayor had announced his run for Congress. The two exchanged contact information and connected on Instagram — a few non-campaign-related, but nonsexual, exchanges followed.
The report includes a large amount of gossip, including one of the key witnesses questioning why the other witnesses were so bothered by matching with a 30-year-old on Tinder after necessarily having set their age ranges to show interest in men of that age: “Witness Three states that both Witnesses One and Two expressed discomfort with Morse’s outreach to them on Tinder. While Witness Three understood their discomfort, he also questioned why a college student would set their Tinder preference to include matches in Morse’s age range if, in fact, they felt that matching with someone Morse’s age was ‘creepy.’”
The report makes clear that at least some of the allegations against Morse that later went public were rumor-driven group think, as is often the case in a college setting.
Throughout the exchanges, students talked among themselves about Morse and their perception of his interest in them, whether to reciprocate it, whether it could be leveraged for career-boosting moves down the line, and what effect the revelation of it could have on his campaign.
After the College Democrats event in October 2019, the group told investigators that they became concerned about Morse’s conduct and rumors about sexual contact. The following April, some members of the group began reaching out to journalists, as The Intercept previously reported.
The UMass report makes clear that at least some of the allegations against Morse that later went public were rumor-driven group think, as is often the case in a college setting: “Witness Three noted that, but for the fact that he later learned of Morse having messaged other students on Tinder and Instagram, he would not have interpreted Morse’s outreach to him on Instagram as evidence of interest in pursuing a physical or romantic relationship.”
Those concerns extended beyond the school’s group. Student A, a student at UMass, said a friend of hers had had sexual contact with Morse and later felt uncomfortable because of the “power dynamic.” Witness One described her to investigators as “especially adamant that the group needed to go public with what they knew.”
Student A wanted to take the statement to Twitter in July and went so far as to work with Witness One to draft a statement to post to the site, though she ultimately declined to do so.
According to The Intercept’s previous reporting, the report produced for the Mass Dems by attorney Cheryl Jacques, and the emails and text messages reproduced in the new UMass report, the leadership of the UMass College Democrats and the College Democrats of Massachusetts took their allegations against Morse to the state party. College Democrats of Massachusetts President Hayley Fleming reached out to Massachusetts Democrats Chair Gus Bickford and Executive Director Veronica Martinez for guidance as the group prepared to bar Morse from future meetings.
Bickford and Martinez pointed the students to their attorney Jim Roosevelt. Roosevelt, an attorney with Verrill Law and a grandson of former President Franklin Roosevelt, has been involved with Democratic politics at the state and national level for decades. In addition to being the Mass Dems lawyer, Roosevelt is a co-chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee and was CEO of Tufts Health Plan for 10 years.
Evidence in the new UMass report implicates Roosevelt in the writing of a letter for the College Democrats to send out to chapters. As one student said in a text on July 29 to other members of the CDMA executive board, Roosevelt advised the students through Bickford and Martinez that “if we want to move forward on leaking it to the press, someone would contact BLANK and tell him (on the record but unattributable so that their name doesn’t get published) that the CDMA eboard voted on this and sent it to the CM.” The full message exchange is attached to the report.
In an interview with The Intercept, Roosevelt said that the texts and prior allegations were wrong.
“It’s not clear to me what lawyer they’re talking about there, because that was not my advice,” said Roosevelt.
The only other lawyer that the students talked to, according to the Jacques report, was Andrea Kramer, who advised the students to talk to Morse on the phone if necessary but that the allegations could lead to “legal problems.”
The Intercept asked Roosevelt if there was a third attorney involved.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
The report includes an August 6 email detailing Roosevelt’s alleged role:
This is the statement that Mass Dems’ lawyer wrote for us and recommended we share with chapters:
“The boards of college Democrats of Massachusetts, UMass Amherst Democrats, and Amherst College Democrats have voted to notify Mayor Alex Morse and his campaign that he is no longer welcome at their events. This action was taken at the request of student members of the organizations. It is not based on his ideology or any current or past political contest. It is based on his past interactions with these students.”
Asked about it by The Intercept, Roosevelt emphatically denied any involvement in writing the statement.
“I did not write it,” Roosevelt said. “I did discuss it with them, so it’s not literally correct, but I did discuss it with them — but this was after the letter to Alex Morse and his response confirming all the allegations had already been in the press.”
The Intercept pointed out that the email is dated August 6 and that the allegations were not made public until the next day, August 7.
“Well, then, what the students told me was that they had already heard from reporters that it was going to be in the press the next morning,” Roosevelt said.
Within the state party, those involved in the scandal faced no consequences. Bickford was resoundingly reelected by party members to serve another four years as chair in November.
“To me, it says that many longer time members don’t care what he did,” Walsh told The Flashpoint newsletter in November. “They don’t care that he acted unethically, and they don’t care that he broke the bylaws. At the end of the day, he’s the devil they know. No matter what he does, they prefer him to a progressive who would change the status quo they rely on.”
Bickford did not respond to requests for comment. Martinez, in an emailed statement, appeared to claim that the report exonerated the state party.
“The UMass report shows that some of those involved have made conflicting statements about their interactions with the Party,” Martinez wrote. “The Party is committed to repairing the damage done as a result of this ordeal.”
But DSC member Nancy Stenberg, whose district includes Morse’s home, told The Intercept that the new report’s findings only served to confirm the bad behavior by party leadership — and are yet another sign that nothing will fundamentally change at the top.
“It has been business as usual from Gus Bickford since his declaration in November that he would work to repair the damage that his actions caused,” said Stenberg.
For the mayor, the emails and texts just confirm what he already knows to be true.
The report, Morse said, “just offers further evidence that there was a direct collaboration between the Mass Dems leadership and Jim Roosevelt and these students to time this letter and allegations as close to the election as possible to cause maximum impact.”
Correction: Feb. 8, 2021
A previous version of this article incorrectly named Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein LLP as the law firm that prepared the report. The report was prepared by the firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP.