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UMass Amherst, state Democratic party to conduct probes in wake of allegations against Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who is running for Congress against incumbent US Representative Richard Neal.
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who is running for Congress against incumbent US Representative Richard Neal.Steven G. Smith/Photo by Steven G. Smith ©

The congressional race between Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and US Representative Richard Neal, roiled last week by allegations against Morse of inappropriate relationships with college students, has spurred separate investigations launched by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the state’s Democratic Party.

Fallout from those allegations — that accused Morse of using his “position of power for romantic or sexual gain,” according to a letter released by the College Democrats of Massachusetts more than a week ago — has drawn national attention to the First District race ahead of Monday’s scheduled debate between the two.

Earlier this month, the university’s student newspaper, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, published a story about the letter, which said Morse, 31, was no longer welcome at events held by the group and alleged he had relationships with students, including some at UMass Amherst, where he worked as a lecturer for several years.

Morse has said he would remain in the race but apologized because he said he recognized some students felt uncomfortable with interactions they had with him. Neal, 71, has repeatedly declined to comment on the allegations.

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The UMass Amherst investigation is being led by Natashia Tidwell, a former federal prosecutor who was among the lawyers who oversaw the 2017 state Senate Committee on Ethics inquiry into the conduct of former Senate president Stanley C. Rosenberg.

She also served as a court-appointed monitor to help oversee implementation of civil rights reforms in Ferguson, Mo., following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by police there, according to a public biography. Tidwell also served on the transition team for Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins following her 2018 election. Tidwell did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

That probe will focus on allegations against Morse made by the UMass Democrats student group, the school said Friday. The university believes the nature of the allegations initially raised against Morse necessitates “a thorough and independent review,” the UMass statement said.

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That includes the possibility of determining whether students were subjected to a hostile learning environment under the university’s policies, which are “based on and guided by” federal and state anti-discrimination law, the statement said.

The Massachusetts Democratic Party said in a statement it has pledged to review “the actions and decisions” that led to the release of a letter telling Morse he was banned from events held by the College Democrats of Massachusetts, according to Gus Bickford, the state party’s chairman.

“We are committed to initiating an independent review of the actions and decisions that led to the release of the letter by the College Democrats of Massachusetts,” Bickford said in the statement. “I am confident that this review will show that Party staff acted appropriately.”

On Friday, news website The Intercept reported that Massachusetts Democratic Party officials coordinated with the College Democrats of Massachusetts to launch the allegations against Morse.

The outlet previously reported on what it said were messages between club leaders that appeared to indicate that the accusations were part of an effort to attack Morse. One of those student leaders wanted to get a job working for Neal, it said.

James Roosevelt Jr., a volunteer attorney for the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said in an interview Saturday that the College Democrats first approached state officials in late July about their concerns regarding Morse.

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Roosevelt provided a legal review of a proposed letter to Morse and his campaign that outlined the concerns of the College Democrats, he said.

The letter originated from the student group, and Roosevelt said he recommended to the students that it not be made public. The letter was substantially the same one that was later reported on by the UMass Amherst newspaper, he said.

“There was no coordination between party officials and College Democrats or students to launch allegations against Alex Morse,” Roosevelt said.

Since the allegations surfaced, Morse has pushed back, and in an interview Saturday, he said there was political motivation behind the accusations.

The allegations against him have also raised awareness of his campaign. In their wake, the Morse campaign said it had its best week of fund-raising ever: $335,000 from more than 9,400 individual contributions since Aug. 7.

“We have more people than ever before paying attention to this race. But if anything, this is just crystallizing why I am running in the first place,” Morse said. “People deserve a member of Congress that will fight for them, and not for special interests.”

The Neal campaign did not respond directly Saturday but re-sent a statement it had released earlier in the week: “This campaign has not commented on the substance of this issue and we will await the findings of all independent reviews.”

Morse, in the Saturday interview, questioned the legitimacy of the state party investigating itself.

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When asked whether he thought Neal knew about, or was involved with the allegations, Morse said: “I trust that people come to their own conclusions on this. I do think it’s suspicious. It’s no coincidence that this is happening two weeks before the election.”

Neal’s campaign on Saturday re-released another earlier statement, this one responding to questions over his involvement: “Any implications that I or anyone from my campaign are involved are flat wrong and an attempt to distract from the issue at hand. I have been and will remain entirely focused on the respective records of myself and Mayor Morse.”

Meanwhile on Saturday, Barney Frank, who served for decades in Congress and was its first openly gay representative, reiterated his support for Neal’s reelection in a statement. Frank also said he is disappointed by suggestions that Neal “is in any way to blame” for Morse’s situation.

Frank said his support is based on his appreciation of Neal’s effective advocacy of liberal positions, the statement said, including “full equality for LGBT people.”

“He has been a strong, enthusiastic supporter of every step in our fight for his entire Congressional career,” Frank said in the statement, calling Neal a “great asset for progressive accomplishments.”

Some have pulled back their support of Morse — among them, Jamaal Bowman, a progressive who defeated longtime Representative Eliot Engel of New York in last month’s primary.

Bowman “paused” his endorsement of Morse on Tuesday, according to The Hill, which first reported Bowman’s decision.

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“As a school principal, I believe it’s important to listen to students and to be sensitive to the unequal power dynamics in these relationships,” Bowman said in a statement to the Hill.

The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led environmental group, said it has also suspended its support.

But some organizations continue to back Morse, including the Working Families Party and the Justice Democrats, which also supported the campaigns of Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Public response to the students allegations has also led to counter-accusations that they are meant to tap into homophobia against Morse, who was among the first of the state’s openly gay mayors.

On Saturday, the Bay State Stonewall Democrats organization called, in a statement, for an independent investigation of anyone involved with what it called “this unprecedented abuse of power.”



John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.