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    Yvonne Abraham

    Ethics probe barely alive, as those who spoke up fear Senate reprisals

    Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File
    State Senator Stan Rosenberg.

    Independent investigators looking into Senator Stan Rosenberg’s conduct in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct against his husband have a problem: Some of the people they most need to speak to won’t go near them.

    The Senate Ethics Committee appointed a law firm to conduct an independent investigation into whether Rosenberg violated Senate rules after four men alleged that Bryon Hefner assaulted and harassed them, and boasted of his influence over Senate matters. Shortly after the Globe reported on the accusations in November, Rosenberg stepped down as Senate president for the duration of the investigation. He continues to participate in Senate affairs. (Hefner went into residential treatment for alcohol dependency, and a Rosenberg spokeswoman said the couple are separated.)

    But only one of the four men who made the assault allegations has spoken to the investigators. Two alleged victims, and others who could shed light on the question of whether Hefner influenced Senate matters, are staying away. (A fourth man who said Hefner assaulted him said he prefers to deal with the state’s attorney general.)

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    “There’s no way I would come forward,” said one of the alleged victims. “This is an investigation to clear Stan Rosenberg’s name. It’s not an investigation to find out the truth.”

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    Those who have so far avoided the Senate investigation say they don’t believe their anonymity will be protected, or that they will be safe from retaliation if they come forward. They worry that the Senate isn’t serious about dealing with their allegations — particularly after the recent news that Rosenberg maintains strong support among some of his colleagues, who are eager for his return if he’s cleared.

    To victims and others, that looks a lot like senators circling wagons around Rosenberg, upon whom some of his colleagues depend for leadership posts, and whom others admire for his inclusive governing style and progressive policy positions.

    Senator Jason Lewis, one of those who has said he hopes to see Rosenberg returned to the presidency if he’s cleared, said on Saturday: “It is critical that anyone with relevant information to share feels safe coming forward.”

    “I have full confidence that the Senate Ethics Committee’s investigation will be thorough, impartial, and will ensure the confidentiality of anyone who participates,” said the Winchester Democrat.

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    Some potential witnesses do not share that confidence: They worry about being exposed, despite promises of anonymity. On Friday, WGBH reported that independent investigators must reveal to the six senators on the Ethics Committee the identities of witnesses they wish to subpoena. That has had a chilling effect on witnesses who, like many of the women and men who have talked about harassment in state politics, fear being stigmatized for speaking out, and harming their causes in a building built on relationships and reputations.

    Investigators are focused on whether Rosenberg was aware of Hefner’s assaults, and knew that Hefner was boasting about his power in the Senate, according to a person with first-hand knowledge of their inquiry.

    Several of the alleged assaults took place when Rosenberg was nearby, though the Globe found no evidence that the then-Senate president was aware of them. One man said he told a Rosenberg staffer about a 2015 assault shortly after it happened, and that the staffer seemed sympathetic but unsurprised. Though the alleged victim’s account of that conversation is backed up by an e-mail he sent to colleagues at the time, the staffer said he did not recall having had such a conversation.

    All four men said they did not report the incidents because they feared alienating Rosenberg, over whom, they believed, Hefner had great influence.

    Rosenberg, who promised in 2014 that he had established “a firewall” between his private life and the business of the Senate, said he was “confident that the investigation will find that Bryon had no influence on the workings of the Senate,” in a press conference shortly after the allegations against Hefner emerged.

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    But some of those who dealt with him said Hefner demonstrated a deep knowledge of the day-to-day workings of the Senate that went beyond what one might ordinarily know about a spouse’s work.

    They said Hefner followed up on their conversations with Rosenberg, claimed to speak for the Senate president, and dealt directly with legislative staffers. The Globe viewed messages from Hefner on Senate issues that appeared to back up those claims. And Hefner was by Rosenberg’s side at many events outside the State House — a fact that one alleged victim said should give pause to the senators eager for Rosenberg’s return to the presidency.

    “Senators [seem] to be in the same place they were three months ago,” said that man, who was one of the four who told the Globe his story. They are “not ready to make real change.”

    Investigators must decide whether Hefner’s frequent boasts of his influence over the Senate were empty or reflected real power.

    But that task becomes exponentially harder if the people who could shed light on that question are afraid to cooperate.

    One person, who is not among the four men who alleged the assaults, said he dealt with Hefner in the Senate and has saved communications from him regarding the chamber’s business. But he said he too is staying away from the investigation — though he has spoken to the FBI, which has also launched an inquiry into the allegations against Hefner.

    “I know I have information that [the Senate investigators] would find relevant, but I don’t feel safe cooperating,” said the man, who shared some of those communications with the Globe. “The agenda seems to be to get Stan back, and restore him to the presidency, even though there is clear evidence there was no firewall.”

    His reticence underlines the difficulty of truly tackling the problem of sexually predatory behavior on Beacon Hill, as both the House and Senate say they want to make it a place where victims of harassment and assault feel safe coming forward. Those victims will feel protected only if investigations into their allegations are truly independent.

    That is why Senator Jamie Eldridge has proposed a permanent, independent commission to deal with harassment complaints from those who work and do business on Beacon Hill.

    “Clearly, the revelations at the State House have shown that victims do not feel safe reporting to senators or reps,” said the Acton Democrat.

    The commission would protect victims’ anonymity, and help shield them from the harsh consequences they fear.

    When it comes to harassment, the culture in the State House is broken. Nothing short of radical change will fix it.

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