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Mass. Democratic Party chairman violated party rules involving himself in Morse-Neal primary, probe finds

Facing reelection, Gus Bickford denied he did anything wrong, saying ‘I was determined to stay out of this race.’

Gus Bickford in a file photo.
Gus Bickford in a file photo.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

The head of the Massachusetts Democratic Party violated party rules barring him from getting involved in a contested primary when he encouraged a group of college Democrats to send a letter to Holyoke mayor and congressional candidate Alex Morse that raised misconduct allegations against him before the Sept. 1 election, a party-ordered investigation found.

Gus Bickford, who next week is vying for reelection as party chairman, also appeared to encourage the students to talk to a reporter about the accusations against Morse, whom Bickford had once tried to “discourage” from running against Representative Richard E. Neal in the First Congressional District, the probe concluded.

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Bickford denied Friday that he inappropriately involved himself in the race.

The investigation, conducted by former state senator Cheryl Jacques at the request of party leaders, delved into the complicated imbroglio that entangled Morse and Neal’s heated congressional race before Neal ultimately won reelection by nearly 18 points.

The College Democrats of Massachusetts in August had accused Morse, who is openly gay, of inappropriate sexual relations with college students before and during his congressional campaign and claimed he used his position of power for “romantic or sexual gain.” Morse, who until recently had been a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, quickly apologized to anyone he made feel uncomfortable, but maintained that he had done nothing wrong.

Bickford and the party’s executive director, Veronica Martinez, quickly became publicly embroiled after dozens of state committee members demanded an investigation into what role they may have played in the allegations surfacing against Morse just weeks ahead of the primary.

In her 25-page report, Jacques found that party leaders “were not honest” about their continued involvement in the situation after the allegations became public and that Martinez had instructed the then-president of the College Democrats to “delete communications between the two of them,” only to later deny doing so.

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Jacques determined that party leaders did not initiate the idea to “derail Morse” by raising the allegations, and members of the College Democrats had discussed their concerns about Morse months, and in some cases years, before they spoke with Bickford and Martinez in late July on how to handle inquiries from reporters about the accusations.

But when students raised the idea of sending a letter directly to Morse, Bickford told them to “go with” that option and to “do it before the election,” according to Jacques’s report. The students also sought Bickford’s advice because a Politico reporter had asked about the allegations.

Bickford told them that the reporter had credibility and was a “trusted source,” adding: “If you don’t go on the record with him, he won’t write the story.”

That, Jacques wrote, indicated that Bickford was “encouraging the students to talk to the reporter on the record and to do so prior to the election.” Those actions, including advising the students to send the letter ahead of the primary, violated a bylaw that prohibits party staff from participating in a contested Democratic primary, Jacques wrote. The role of party chairman is a full-time position with a $100,000 salary.

In an e-mail he sent to Democratic State Committee members Friday, Bickford denied that he was trying to push the students to leak the information or that he tried to involve himself in the race. Jacques’s report noted, and Bickford emphasized, that he encouraged the students to talk directly with Morse’s campaign manager.

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“I do strongly disagree with the baseless statement that by commenting on the credibility of a well-known national political reporter, I somehow implied or suggested that material be leaked to that reporter,” Bickford wrote. “Equally untrue is the false claim that I suggested the students send a letter before election day.

“At all times I was determined to stay out of this race, and I know I did that,” he added. “Consequently I am certain that I never suggested any action be taken before the election.”

According to Jacques’s report, Bickford and Martinez later referred the students to Jim Roosevelt, who serves as an unpaid attorney for the party and reviewed a letter the students had drafted before they sent it to Morse in early August. The students told Jacques that Roosevelt also suggested that they “leak” the letter, a charge Roosevelt vehemently denied, Jacques wrote.

The UMass student newspaper, The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, later reported on the letter, though the students said they did not know how the paper had gotten a copy, according to Jacques’s report.

Even though party leaders said publicly at the time that they had “no further involvement” once they referred the students to Roosevelt, that wasn’t true, Jacques found.

Martinez continued to text and talk frequently with the president of the College Democrats to provide what Jacques said was “moral support,” and she later told the student to delete the text messages and phone records “in case they get in the wrong hands,” according to Jacques.

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Martinez disputed she told the student to erase information.

“Throughout this situation, I believed it was important to provide support to a young college student who felt, as the report states, ‘way in over her head,’ ” Martinez said Friday. “I made explicitly clear to this student that I could not provide advice in my professional capacity or as it directly relates to this situation, and I did not.”

Bickford, in a separate statement, said he maintains the party did not involve itself further. “The bottom line is this: We were approached by college students who expressed concerns and asked for help. We earnestly attempted to help these students, and connected them with the guidance they were seeking.”

Morse said Friday that Bickford and Martinez need to be held accountable for their “unethical and inappropriate actions."

“It is clear that the Massachusetts Democratic Party inappropriately interfered to harm my campaign for Congress and aid Congressman Neal’s reelection effort,” Morse said. “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.”

The report, which Jacques was tapped to conduct in September, lands at a pivotal moment within the state party. Bickford, who was first elected in 2016, is running for reelection as chairman against Mike Lake and Bob Massie, two former statewide candidates. The state committee is scheduled to vote Thursday.

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The Bay State Stonewall Democrats called for a new party chair Friday to “ensure the recommendations in the report are properly implemented, but also provide for an avenue to repair the relationship between the party and the LGBTQIA+ community.”

Others, meanwhile, said they stood by Bickford. “There may have been a technical violation of one of the rules at one point, but the intent of what was going on here was not to try to influence the outcome of the race,” said Edward Collins, a state committee member in Western Massachusetts.

According to Jacques’s report, Bickford also met with Morse in the spring of 2019, before he announced he would challenge Neal, and “discouraged” Morse from running because he thought it would be a distraction from the effort to unseat President Trump. Instead, Bickford recommended that Morse run for lieutenant governor in 2022, should Attorney General Maura Healey choose to run for governor, Jacques wrote. (Healey has not publicly said she is considering such a move.)

Bickford’s actions in that instance did not violate party rules, because Morse wasn’t a declared candidate. But Jacques said the bylaws do not specify when a person is considered a candidate, and Jacques wrote he “may very well have violated the spirit” of the bylaw.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.