WASHINGTON — A freshman congressman from New York who cited health reasons in announcing his retirement Wednesday is facing allegations of misconduct, a top House Democrat confirmed.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer did not elaborate on the allegation against Democratic Rep. Eric Massa, who said he will not seek a second term after a recurrence of cancer late last year.
The allegation involved a male staffer, a House aide told The Associated Press, but the aide wouldn't characterize the allegation further. The aide was not authorized to discuss the allegation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Massa, 50, who was stricken with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1996, was elected in 2008, defeating Republican Rep. Randy Kuhl in a district long dominated by Republicans. He said during a two-minute conference call with reporters that his cancer returned in December.
"I was briefly hospitalized, kept it private between myself and my immediate family," he said. "It was a very intense and personal experience, especially in light of having gone through this before."
Massa said he was announcing his decision now to give potential contenders time to run, and he dismissed a Politico story that cited unidentified House aides in reporting that the congressman had been accused of harassing a staffer.
"There are blogs who are saying I am leaving because there were charges of harassment against my staff," Massa responded during the conference call. "Do I or have I ever used salty language when I am angry, especially in the privacy of my inner office or even at home? Yes, I have and I have apologized to those where it's appropriate.
"But those kinds of articles, unsubstantiated without fact or backing, are a symptom of what's wrong with this city," he said, "and it's why so many have looked at the absolute gridlock in Washington, the intense partisanship without rational thought and decided, like I, I do not have the life energy to fight all the battles all the time."
He took no questions from reporters.
But in a statement late Wednesday, Hoyer said he was told the week of Feb. 8 by a staff member in Massa's office about allegations of misconduct. Hoyer directed Massa to report the allegations to the House Ethics Committee within 48 hours. Hoyer said he got confirmation within 48 hours that the Ethics Committee had received the report and would review the allegations.
Massa's office did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment about Hoyer's statement.
Massa's decision, first reported by the New York Daily News, made a bad day for New York Democrats even worse. Twenty-term Rep. Charles Rangel of New York stepped down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee amid ethics inquiries. Gov. David Paterson, already trying to hold onto office in the face of one scandal, was accused of violating state ethics laws by getting free Yankees tickets for the 2009 World Series.
"Like so many other New York Democrats, his personal and professional behavior has left Massa scrambling for self-preservation rather than focused on public service," New York Republican Party Chairman Edward Cox said.
The district is viewed as vulnerable in the coming midterm election. Massa voted against the House version of President Barack Obama's health care bill in November and was among the House members seen as critical to passage of the latest version.
Former Corning Mayor Tom Reed, a Republican, already had announced his candidacy for the seat. Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks said Wednesday she is considering a run.
"I was saddened to hear that Congressman Massa's health will preclude him from running for re-election," Reed said in a statement. "While the congressman and I disagreed on political issues, I respect his military and public service and wish him the best."
The 29th district in the southwestern corner of New York has been dominated by Republicans since the party's founding in 1854. It's a largely agricultural district the size of Connecticut where registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 53,000 in 2008, when Massa wrested the seat from Randy Kuhl. It wasn't until more than two weeks after the election that Kuhl conceded.
A fiscal conservative and a former Republican, Massa spent 24 years in the Navy, running up tours of combat in Beirut, the Persian Gulf War and Bosnia-Kosovo.
Massa lost to Kuhl by just over 6,000 votes in his first run for office in 2006.
Hornell Mayor Shawn Hogan, chairman of the Steuben County Democratic Committee, said Massa encouraged him to run for the seat during a call Wednesday.
"I told him I was humbled, and it will be something I will have to do some deep soul-searching about with my family. I will give it serious consideration," Hogan told The Buffalo News.
Thompson reported from Buffalo, N.Y.