Metro

Four men allege sexual misconduct by Senate president’s husband

He was a policy advocate who made his living trying to persuade legislators on Beacon Hill to help nonprofit groups. He was exhausted after a working dinner with a group of senators and their spouses on that fall night in 2015. It was very late, and he wanted nothing more than to sleep.

But Bryon Hefner, then the fiance of Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, appeared in his doorway. As the advocate recently described it, Hefner took a step forward, grabbed the man’s genitals, and didn’t let go. He recalled Hefner asking him to have some fun with him, telling him Rosenberg wouldn’t mind, that Hefner and the Senate president were a team on Beacon Hill, and that they would take care of him.

The advocate froze. He felt violated, powerless.

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“Nothing prepared me for that moment,” he said in one of several interviews over the past few weeks.

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The advocate tried to do the calculations. Several times before that night, Hefner had boasted to him of his great pull in state politics, and of his influence with Rosenberg. He had described the Senate president’s priorities as what “we” — Hefner and Rosenberg — were trying to accomplish at the State House. The advocate needed Rosenberg on his side. Hefner left the man in no doubt that he was asking for sexual favors in return for help on Beacon Hill.

The advocate, well-known in the insular world of Massachusetts politics, is one of four men who told the Globe that Hefner sexually assaulted and harassed them over the past few years. Three of the men say Hefner grabbed their genitals (two allege he did so more than once), and one says he kissed him against his will. Though three of the alleged incidents took place when Rosenberg was mere feet away, the Globe found no evidence that the Senate president knew about the assaults.

This account is based on interviews with 20 people who have dealt with Hefner or know his alleged victims.

All of the men said they felt powerless to report the incidents because they feared alienating Rosenberg, with whom they believe Hefner has tremendous influence. Reporting Hefner’s behavior to Rosenberg or the authorities was a career-threatening prospect, they said.

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They spoke to the Globe only reluctantly, worried about damaging their work in politics and their reputations. A couple of them also worried about hurting Rosenberg, whose progressive priorities they admire. The Globe granted anonymity to the victims because they must still work with Rosenberg, and interact with Hefner. Each of their stories was confirmed by people who witnessed or talked to the victims shortly after the incidents they described, and, in one case, by e-mails describing the alleged assaults soon after they occurred.

Neither Hefner nor Rosenberg agreed to be interviewed for this story. In prepared statements issued Thursday, each said he was surprised by the claims.

“I was shocked to learn of these anonymous and hurtful allegations,” read Hefner’s statement, issued through his attorney. “To my knowledge, no one has complained to me or any political or governmental authority about these allegations which are now surfacing years afterward. As one can imagine, it is incredibly difficult to respond to allegations by unnamed and unidentified individuals that involve an extended period of time, particularly in the current environment.”

The Senate president said that this was the first he had heard of the allegations of sexual misconduct by his husband.

“Even though, based on what little I have been told, these allegations do not involve members or employees of the Senate and did not occur in the State House, I take them seriously,” read Rosenberg’s statement. “To the best of my recollection I was not approached by anyone with complaints during or after the alleged incidents made in this article or I would have tried to intervene.”

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Hefner, 30, and Rosenberg, 68, met when Hefner had a summer job in Rosenberg’s office. They bonded over the fact that each had had a difficult childhood spent in foster care, and they have been a couple since 2008. They were married in September 2016. In a 2014 interview with the Globe, as he was ascending to his current position, Rosenberg called their relationship “deeply committed” and credited Hefner with his own decision to live as an openly gay man.

“I would not have come out if he had not come into my life,” Rosenberg said at the time. “It was the greatest gift anyone has given to me.”

The Senate president sat down for that interview after controversy erupted over Hefner’s involvement in the affairs of the Senate: Hefner had boasted of his influence on leadership appointments and staffing, and was widely believed to be behind insulting tweets targeting outgoing Senate President Therese Murray.

In an interview with the Globe at the time, Rosenberg said he had made it clear to his then-fiance that he was not to be involved in any Senate business. In a letter to Democratic senators, Rosenberg wrote: “I have enforced a firewall between my private life and the business of the Senate, and will continue to do so.”

But, according to seven of the people interviewed for this story, including several of the alleged victims, any firewall that Rosenberg might have tried to build has not been successful. Those people have had conversations with Hefner in which he demonstrates a deep knowledge of the day-to-day workings of the Senate, one that goes well beyond what one might know about a spouse’s work. They say Hefner has followed up on their conversations with Rosenberg, and claimed to speak for the Senate president. They have seen him deal directly with legislative staffers on Senate matters. Their impressions are bolstered by Hefner’s own frequent claims that he is intimately involved in Rosenberg’s work.

Additionally, the Globe has reviewed messages written by Hefner that show his active involvement in the business of the Senate. They include direct communication with legislators and aides about Senate business, and exchanges in which Hefner orders around Rosenberg staffers.

.   .   .

After standing frozen in his doorway for what seemed like an eternity, the policy advocate whom Hefner allegedly assaulted in the fall of 2015 overcame his shock and asked Hefner to leave, gently pushing his shoulder to ease him away. Only then, he said, did Hefner let go of his genitals.

After that, the advocate, in his mid-40s, tried to avoid Hefner. But that proved impossible, he said. On a second night, the man was sitting at a large table as he facilitated a policy discussion with legislators and others. Hefner had sat down beside him. As the man was leading a question-and-answer session, he said, Hefner groped him repeatedly under the table. The man kept pushing Hefner’s hand off him, he said, all while continuing to lead the talk. But Hefner kept putting it back.

“I was in the middle of a forum,” said the man. “I cannot leave. I cannot go anywhere.”

He told colleagues of Hefner’s assaults immediately after each incident. The Globe spoke to two of those colleagues — who confirmed the details of both incidents — and viewed e-mails from the time in which the advocate described them to two other co-workers.

Boston, MA--1/7/2015--Bryon Hefner (cq), center, is the partner of new Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg (cq). He sits in the Senate Gallery with former Congressman John Olver (cq). Outgoing Governor Deval Patrick (cq) will later take his "Lone Walk" through and out of the State House, on Wednesday, January 7, 2015. Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff Topic: 08Patrick Reporter: Joshua Miller
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff /file
Bryon Hefner (center) sat in the Senate Gallery in 2015. Four men told the Globe that Hefner sexually assaulted and harassed them over the past few years.

The advocate said he also told a Rosenberg staffer about the incidents at the time. He said the staffer was sympathetic, but seemed unsurprised at the news that the Senate president’s partner had assaulted him (this account, too, is confirmed by an e-mail the victim sent to colleagues at the time). He recalled the aide saying that Senate staffers tried to keep an eye on Hefner, to keep him out of trouble.

“He made it clear that . . . this was something where the staff knew ‘this is a problem we have to deal with,’ ” the policy advocate recalled.

The staffer, who has since left Rosenberg’s office, said in an interview that he has no recollection of ever having had such a conversation.

The policy advocate said he had discussions with his own colleagues about whether to report the assaults to the police, to Rosenberg, or to other Senate leaders. But they decided together that the risk of alienating the Senate president was too high.

“There was no way of acting upon this that wouldn’t do harm to the interests of my clients,” the man said. Instead, he resolved to “sort it out for myself and move on.”

His two colleagues confirmed his account.

“He was in an untenable position,” said one of them. “He could either protect his own safety and dignity, or protect the agenda of our community. It was a very painful conclusion.”

The only option was to keep quiet about the incidents and stay away from Hefner.

“I just felt powerless,” the policy advocate said. “It became a pattern of consciously avoiding certain social situations with members of the Senate in order to not put myself in a position to be assaulted.” But that proved difficult: On a third occasion, Hefner aggressively propositioned him, the man said.

He decided he would go public only if Hefner followed through on talk of running for office.

“No way in hell could I stay silent and allow a sitting member of the state Legislature to be a sexual predator,” he said.

So the man kept his story to himself until a few weeks ago, after a cascading series of revelations of sexual assault and harassment by powerful men, and after the Globe published a column on Oct. 27 about sexual harassment in state politics.

In the aftermath of that column, Rosenberg trumpeted the seriousness of the Senate’s approach to the issue, touting improvements he had made to harassment policies since assuming the presidency.

“We have a zero tolerance policy in the Senate,” he said, speaking to reporters Oct. 30. “We prevent, by first creating a culture in which people understand that if there is a problem, they should come forward. . . . Our policy is working quite well, but we try to be vigilant.”

That angered the advocate.

“When Rosenberg said that there is a zero tolerance policy in the Senate, I was stunned,” he said. “There is a predator in Rosenberg’s inner circle. He participates in official functions and he uses his influence with the Senate president as a part of his tool-belt of harassment techniques.”

Even then, however, he did not initiate contact with the Globe. He described the alleged assaults only after a Globe columnist called him to speak about sexual harassment on Beacon Hill more generally.

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Another victim called the Globe back in August — before the start of the national discussion of sexual harassment triggered by revelations of predatory behavior by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein — to say that Hefner had sexually assaulted him several times in 2015 and 2016.

This man was in his early 20s and just starting out as an aide on Beacon Hill when he met Hefner and Rosenberg at a social event. He admired Rosenberg’s progressive agenda and leadership style, and was hoping to learn from Hefner, who brought him into the Senate president’s orbit, and seemed to know all of the workings — and the gossip — of Beacon Hill.

In the summer of 2015, the aide met Hefner for drinks at a bar near Government Center, and they agreed to meet a mutual friend elsewhere for margaritas. He was surprised then when Hefner led him not to another bar, but to the apartment Hefner shares with Rosenberg, just behind the State House. Rosenberg was not in Boston that evening.

The aide said he and Hefner were drinking cocktails on a couch when Hefner put his hand on the aide’s leg. The aide pushed it off, but Hefner persisted, leaning over and unzipping the man’s pants. The aide zipped up his pants and tried to act as if nothing had happened, he said, reluctant to alienate the Senate president’s partner. He said Hefner then grabbed at his crotch. The aide went to the bathroom and stayed there until a mutual friend arrived, then left.

Two friends whom the aide told about the incident immediately afterward confirmed his account.

“He was upset,” said one friend, whom the aide called after leaving Hefner’s apartment. “And since then, he has been terrified by the ramifications, because Bryon Hefner is with Rosenberg, and he thought it would affect his career.” A second friend said the aide, “distraught,” called her about a week later and described the incident.

The aide made a point never to be alone with Hefner after that night. But in the spring of 2016, he said, Hefner assaulted him again, this time at a small dinner with Rosenberg and some activists following a political event. Hefner sat down next to the aide, and repeatedly reached under the table and put his hand between the man’s legs. Rosenberg was sitting directly across from them, the aide said.

“It was so frustrating,” the aide said. “These were people I respected, and I wanted them to respect me. I didn’t want to make a big scene because I really valued my relationship with Stan.” He finally left the table to take a call, staying away for as long as he could.

Later that spring, the aide said, Hefner grabbed his genitals again, this time while they rode together to a political event in the back seat of a Prius. Rosenberg was sitting up front. Again, the aide tried to push Hefner’s hand off him without making a scene.

The aide has tried to avoid Hefner altogether since then, but that is almost impossible, he said, since Rosenberg’s husband is so often around Beacon Hill.

“Sometimes it really messes me up” to see him, the aide said. “It makes it difficult to feel safe at work, or anywhere near the State House. It’s hard not to run into him.”

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A third man said he was assaulted by Hefner at a fund-raiser in 2015. Their conversation “started normally,” said this man, who works on Beacon Hill. Then Hefner suddenly put his hand up the man’s shorts, grabbing his genitals.

“I was pretty shook,” said the man, who was in his mid-20s at the time. “I felt violated.” Hefner was drunk, and tried to get him to go home with him, said the man, who eventually extricated himself. Two friends whom the man immediately told about the assault confirmed the details of his account.

“He didn’t know where to go,” said one of those friends, who talked to the victim by phone the night of the assault and again at a cafe near the State House the next day. “I said, ‘Listen, this is assault, we’ve got to report this, let’s find out what police station to go to.’ He wasn’t having that. He was too scared about the repercussions.”

The man said Hefner texted him repeatedly after that night, sometimes telling him people were talking about them, sometimes with lewd messages and propositions.

“What do I do? Do I respond ‘LOL’? That looks like I’m going along with his behavior,” said the man. “You don’t know how to deal with this kid because of who his husband is. I didn’t want to burn myself. He sends inappropriate things, so it looks like you are a party to it.”

After the assault, he got wind of rumors that he and Hefner had been involved, and he fears Hefner began them, using gossip to muddy the fact that he had assaulted him.

“That is why I am still sick to my stomach about this,” the man said. “Years later, when I did nothing wrong, he has a way of making me feel like I did something wrong. You can’t get away from him. His husband is the Senate president. What am I supposed to do? There’s no one I can file an HR complaint with.”

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A fourth man, a lobbyist, said Hefner assaulted him in the summer of 2016. He and his partner were preparing to leave a party when Hefner grabbed his arm, wheeled him around, and kissed him, forcefully and against his will.

“It was such a jarring experience,” the lobbyist said. “In that moment I was kind of like, ‘What is happening right now?’ I had a hard time dealing with it personally. You blame yourself. You question why.”

His partner confirmed his account. She was upset by what had happened, and said the lobbyist apologized to her repeatedly afterwards, even though he had done nothing wrong. She says he was “in a funk for days.”

The lobbyist felt he had no recourse. Even if he could complain to somebody, he wouldn’t, he said.

“I have always supported Rosenberg,” the lobbyist said. “And he supports the causes I care about. They’re things that are important personally to me, but also professionally. It’s a dangerous thing, too. [Talking about the assault] could make your profile incredibly difficult.”

He worried too, that complaining about it would be seen as homophobic.

“I’ve been a staunch advocate and ally of the LGBT community,” he said. “Does it make me a bad ally to be upset about this? It’s a weird position to be in.”

The revelations of the last two months, and the growing readiness of victims elsewhere to tell their stories of assault and harassment, appear to have changed little for victims on Beacon Hill. Even as legislative leaders — including Rosenberg, as recently as Tuesday — have invited them to come forward, they choose to stay hidden.

Like the women who have previously told their own stories of harassment on Beacon Hill, these men say they simply do not trust that the culture in Massachusetts politics will ever change enough to truly protect them from the potentially career-ending consequences of identifying themselves.

That same culture, they say, has protected Hefner for years.

“For too long, these stories have been out there, and it’s like hitting a brick wall,” said one of his alleged victims. “He has used his husband’s position to coerce people and protect himself. This kid thinks he is invincible.”

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.