Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, fighting to maintain his grip on power, said Friday that he was shocked and heartbroken by allegations that his husband sexually assaulted and harassed four men but was confident an investigation would show his spouse did not interfere with the Senate’s official business.
Rosenberg said he will cooperate fully with an investigation launched by his Senate colleagues while his husband, Bryon Hefner, 30, enters an in-patient treatment center for alcohol dependence.
Appearing near tears and his voice breaking as he read from a prepared statement, Rosenberg reiterated that the Senate maintains a “zero-tolerance policy” for sexual harassment and “will always encourage people to come forward to any authority they feel comfortable with without any fear of retaliation.”
“My heart goes out to anyone who may have been hurt, and I am committed to helping anyone who has been harmed,” Rosenberg said in a brief appearance outside his office, during which he took no questions from a large array of media. “This has been the most difficult time in my political life, and in my personal life.”
Rosenberg’s statement infuriated two of Hefner’s alleged victims. Two of them also said they did not believe the Senate could conduct an impartial investigation while Rosenberg remains in charge.
“I’m livid, and I’m shaking,” said one man, an aide who has alleged that Hefner sexually assaulted him three times in 2015 and 2016, immediately after Rosenberg’s press conference. “I just have so many frustrations. Rehab is a show. His response uses alcoholism as a shield against sexual assault in order to deflect this political problem he has.”
A second alleged victim was also incensed.
“I am very, very upset that this kid gets to basically walk away from this because he has an alcohol problem, and he gets to go to rehab,” said a man who works on Beacon Hill, who said Hefner groped him at a fund-raiser in 2015. “Because he has an alcohol problem, he gets to violate me. This is disregarding everything the victims have gone through. I don’t think he is taking any of these allegations seriously and Rosenberg has not taken any responsibility.”
A third alleged victim had a more positive response.
“For the first time in all of this, I feel seen,” said a policy advocate who said Hefner assaulted him in the fall of 2015. “For all the stories that have gone on for years, for all of my managing it quietly, and asking myself, ‘Does Stan know, or doesn’t he?’ I watched today and now I can say ‘Yeah, he knows, and they’re dealing with it, for real.’ ”
As Rosenberg was speaking, his handpicked majority leader, Senator Harriette L. Chandler, was working with the Senate Republican leader, Senator Bruce E. Tarr, to draft the parameters for an investigation into the men’s allegations. The full Senate plans to authorize the investigation during a hastily scheduled formal session on Monday.
It is unclear how long the investigation would take. Once the findings are complete, they will be delivered to the Senate Ethics Committee, which has the power to recommend a range of actions, including censure, expulsion, or no action at all. But the six-member committee, which is controlled by four of Rosenberg’s fellow Democrats, does not have to make the findings public and can keep them secret or release them only partially.
Regardless of the outcome, the allegations would seem to leave Rosenberg, 68, one of the three most powerful politicians on Beacon Hill, politically damaged. A 31-year veteran of the Legislature from Amherst, Rosenberg has been known for a genial, low-key style and attention to progressive policy priorities. He is the first openly gay lawmaker to serve as Senate president.
In a sign of his political vulnerability, one of his Democratic colleagues, Senator Barbara L’Italien of Andover, issued a statement saying Rosenberg should step down as Senate president for the duration of the investigation.
“Any person with information needs to feel safe coming forward,” she said.
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said the Senate should conduct its own investigation, but a separate law-enforcement agency with subpoena powers should also investigate, given that allegations involve claims of sexual assault.
“There does need to be a truly independent investigation,’’ Wilmot said. “This involves very, very serious and troubling behavior — assaults, not just harassment — and that requires a law enforcement investigation, whether it be the attorney general or some other agency.”
The Globe first reported on Thursday that three men say Hefner touched their genitals (two said he did so more than once) and one said Hefner kissed him against his will. Though three of the alleged incidents took place when Rosenberg was just feet away, the Globe found no evidence that the Senate president knew about the assaults.
Several of the alleged incidents took place after Rosenberg promised fellow senators in 2014 that he would enforce a “firewall” between his public and private lives to prevent Hefner from causing problems. Rosenberg made that vow after Hefner was accused of mocking senators on Twitter and meddling in the Senate’s internal workings.
The Senate’s investigation is likely to focus not on Hefner’s alleged misconduct but on the accusations made by some of the victims that Hefner interfered with the Senate’s business and claimed to exert power over policy, Tarr said.
“Generally speaking, we are talking about anything that has touched or influenced the Senate, as opposed to behavior that we all consider to be appalling but that may not have directly involved the Senate itself,” Tarr said.
Rosenberg insisted Friday that Hefner “has no influence over policy, the internal operations of the Senate, or any Senate-related business.”
“If Bryon claimed to have influence over my decisions or over the Senate, he should not have said that,” Rosenberg said. “It is simply not true. I am looking forward to fully cooperating with the investigation and look forward to the findings. I am confident that the investigation will find that Bryon had no influence on the workings of the Senate.”
Hefner and Rosenberg have both previously said they were surprised by the allegations of sexual misconduct and had not been told of them before the Globe report. Several of the victims have said they were afraid that coming forward publicly would destroy their careers.