Report faults Democratic Party staff for handling of Morse allegations
Criticizes top officials but says they did not attempt to undermine candidate
A REPORT ON the state Democratic Party’s response to allegations of sexual misconduct against former congressional candidate Alex Morse faulted top officials for their handling of the situation and for trying to conceal their involvement, but concluded there was no attempt to damage Morse’s candidacy against US Rep. Richard Neal.
The report, written by attorney and former Democratic state senator Cheryl Jacques, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts, found that party executive director Veronica Martinez communicated with a leader of the student group making the allegations about Morse, then lied about those contacts in the party’s public statement and instructed the student to delete records of those communications.
Jacques concluded that Martinez “exercised poor judgement” in continuing those communications – although she also concluded that there was “nothing nefarious” about them.
The report also faulted Democratic Party chairman Gus Bickford for failing to refer the students to their college’s legal counsel or other officials for guidance after the students came to him with their concerns about Morse. Bickford was also criticized for participating in a primary election by urging the students to talk with a reporter about their concerns.
“The Massachusetts Democratic Party can be a model for how we move forward nationally. In its current form, and under its current leadership, that is impossible,” Morse said. “As the election for Chair quickly approaches, it has become abundantly clear that the Party is in desperate need of new leadership.”
Morse said the report made clear “that the Massachusetts Democratic Party inappropriately interfered to harm my campaign for Congress and aid Congressman Neal’s reelection effort.”
Morse, the Holyoke mayor, unsuccessfully challenged Neal in the September primary. Controversy arose when the UMass Amherst College Democrats released a letter accusing Morse, who is gay, of having inappropriate sexual relationships with college students he met on dating apps. The Intercept, an investigative publication, then revealed that the College Democrats had interacted with Democratic Party leaders, who are, under the party charter, obligated to remain neutral in Democratic primaries.
The Democratic State Committee hired Jacques to conduct an independent investigation, which was completed Thursday.
The report found that the allegations made by the College Democrats of Massachusetts were based on long-standing concerns that had been circulating among students, and the students reached out to the state Democratic Party for advice on how to handle them. There is no evidence the concerns were planted or fabricated specifically to harm Morse’s campaign.
According to the report, several College Democrats had been unhappy with Morse’s behavior toward students for years, and rumors had been circulating about Morse dating students. Students who were involved with Morse politically – whether through College Democrat events or through his campaign – reported that Morse flirted with them or sent them provocative messages online. One member of the College Democrats said she had spoken to friends who slept with Morse because they “felt compelled,” then regretted it. Politico reporter Alex Thompson had begun inquiring into Morse’s behavior with students before the Democratic State Committee got involved.
Amid these concerns, members of the College Democrats of Massachusetts began talking about drafting a private letter to Morse about his behavior and sought a lawyer to help them. The president of College Democrats of Massachusetts, Hayley Fleming, first emailed Bickford on July 25, 2020, asking for a meeting and saying the group needed “advice from a responsible adult” on how to handle sexual misconduct allegations about a candidate.
On July 28, College Democrats board members had a Zoom meeting with Bickford and Martinez. According to the report, Bickford advised the students to go to Morse’s campaign manager. When the students did not like that idea but suggested writing to Morse privately, Bickford advised them to do so. The students say he told them to do it “before the election,” although Bickford said he had no recollection of that. Bickford also advised them that Thompson was a “trusted source” who has credibility and said, “if you don’t go on the record with him, he won’t write the story.” Bickford and Martinez said they would talk to party attorney Jim Roosevelt.
Jacques faulted Bickford for not advising the students to go to their college’s legal counsel, dean, or other officials for guidance. She also faulted Bickford for participating in a contested primary through his comments, which she interpreted as encouraging the students to talk to the reporter.
Bickford and Martinez both said they were sensitive to students’ concerns and wanted to provide tangible support by referring them to the party’s lawyer and, in Martinez’s case, providing guidance rather than turning them away and directing them to their college.
Bickford and Martinez then spoke to their attorneys, Roosevelt and Andrea Kramer. Kramer gave them advice to pass on to the College Democrats, which included not speaking to the media. Roosevelt reviewed the College Democrats’ letter and made minor suggestions.
Fleming would keep in touch with Roosevelt for a couple of weeks, receiving regular legal and press advice. According to Fleming, it was Roosevelt who suggested they leak the letter to Thompson at Politico – a charge Roosevelt vehemently denies. According to Roosevelt, Fleming had said the students intended to release the letter publicly, and he suggested they keep it private.
On August 6, Fleming sent the letter to Morse and his campaign manager barring Morse from College Democrats events and citing his inappropriate behavior with students. Morse responded that every relationship he had was consensual, but he apologized for making anyone uncomfortable.
Fleming and Roosevelt offer differing accounts of how Roosevelt responded when the Daily Collegian, which would eventually break the story, told Fleming they had a copy of the letter. Fleming said Roosevelt told her to send the student newspaper a copy of the College Democrats letter and Morse’s response to it; Roosevelt said what he told her was that, if she did respond, she should provide the College Democrats letter and Morse’s response at the same time.
Jacques said she could not conclude either way whether Roosevelt instructed Fleming to leak the letter.
After the news broke, Fleming kept in touch with Martinez, the party’s executive director, seeking her support. Martinez said she could not help her in a professional capacity, but would offer support personally – for example, explaining how to talk to reporters and advising her what terms like “off the record” meant. Jacques said she found “nothing nefarious” about their communications despite the “poor optics,” and it seemed like Martinez was providing Fleming with moral support during a stressful time.
On August 12, Martinez and Bickford texted their communications consultant Kevin Ready about the Morse incident. Bickford was concerned about appearing like the party was getting involved in a primary. They ultimately released a statement saying the party referred the individuals involved to legal counsel and “had no further involvement.”
Jacques wrote that due to the ongoing communications between Martinez and Fleming: “I conclude that DSC staff were not honest in their public communications denying that they had further involvement in this matter.”
Around the same time, Fleming texted the president of the Young Democrats of Massachusetts – a separate organization from the College Democrats – that she and Martinez had been talking on the phone, but Martinez was avoiding emailing her because “the press are snooping around and she doesn’t want a written record.” Fleming said Martinez told her to delete her texts and phone records in case they “get in the wrong hands,” because they showed Martinez knew what was going on. Martinez said those claims were “not true.”
Jacques said she credits Fleming’s account that Martinez asked her to delete her texts.
Jacques said she cannot confirm whether Bickford knew Martinez was continuing to communicate with Fleming, but as her supervisor “he should have confirmed whether the two continued to communicate.”
The report also revealed that although the Democratic State Committee’s policies require it to remain neutral in primaries, Bickford did try to discourage Morse from running.
In early spring of 2019, before Morse announced his candidacy, Bickford met Morse at a restaurant in South Hadley and discouraged him from running against Neal – instead urging him to run for lieutenant governor should Attorney General Maura Healey run for governor in 2022. Bickford explained that he tried to discourage Morse from running because he saw it as a “distraction” and a “money drain” from defeating President Trump. Jacques said Bickford did not violate any party guidelines since Morse was not yet a candidate.
Jacques is recommending that the state party create a State Judicial Counsel to draft protocols for how the party should deal with allegations of sexual misconduct or unethical behavior and establish guidelines for behavior in contested primaries. She recommends training for party staff in ethical conduct and said the party “should take appropriate action regarding staff” consistent with the review.This story was updated with Morse’s comments.