A member of House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s leadership team walked up behind an incoming legislator and grabbed her backside last month during an orientation cocktail hour for newly elected lawmakers, according to several officials who either witnessed or were told of the alleged incident.
The allegations against Representative Paul McMurtry, a Dedham Democrat and, at the time, chairman of the House personnel committee, have roiled several new members of the Legislature, who gave voice to fears that the climate of harassment House leaders vowed to address last year hasn’t abated.
When asked about the allegations against McMurtry, DeLeo’s office acknowledged that the speaker received secondhand reports from some lawmakers of “inappropriate conduct” from the December orientation. But those lawmakers declined to say who they heard was involved, said Catherine Williams, a DeLeo spokeswoman.
The matter was referred to an outside consultant, Cynthia Farquhar, who determined last week that the allegation was “plausible,” Williams said, and an ad hoc legislative committee will now investigate and ultimately decide “whether and how to discipline a member.” Williams did not identify McMurtry as the focus of the investigation.
In an e-mailed statement, McMurtry forcefully denied the allegations, saying it was the first he had heard of them. He also indicated that he welcomed an investigation.
“I can assure you they are absolutely, positively, unequivocally not true,” he said. “I will participate in any review that leads to the truth of these matters.”
The Globe spoke to three legislators, two of whom said the alleged victim told them that McMurtry, 53, grabbed her. A third said she witnessed it directly. The Globe generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault, and the legislator McMurtry allegedly grabbed declined to comment through an attorney.
The allegations may be the first test of how the chamber handles claims of misconduct against one of its own since representatives voted last March to establish new policies around harassment.
New and returning lawmakers gathered on Dec. 13 for a cocktail reception at the Old Chapel on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, where the school had organized a three-day orientation for incoming senators and representatives. The biennial “academy” for new lawmakers includes sessions where legislators participate in simulated hearings, hear from legislative leaders, and have “various networking opportunities,” according to organizers.
During the “Made in Massachusetts” cocktail reception, several legislators gathered in one corner of the room to take a photo. As the female lawmaker walked toward the group, McMurtry grabbed her backside, according to two lawmakers who said the woman told them afterward.
“She told us immediately upon joining the group gathering to take the photo,” one legislator said. “She told us a person had just grabbed her [backside].” The woman then identified that person as McMurtry, the lawmaker said.
“These actions undermine the institution that is the Massachusetts Legislature,” the legislator added.
The female lawmaker “seemed shocked,” a second legislator said. “I struggle with the fact that we’re new, and there is that culture here.”
A third person, a state representative, said she witnessed McMurtry grab the woman’s “behind.”
“He walked up behind her and grabbed it. She was upset,” said the representative, who also noted that McMurtry was at the time chairman of the House Committee on Personnel and Administration. The committee is supposed to “institute proper procedure and protocol in the House and its offices, and facilitate training for House members and staff,” according to the Legislature’s website.
DeLeo, elected to a sixth term as speaker this month, has yet to make committee assignments for the two-year session that began Jan. 2.
Williams, DeLeo’s spokeswoman, said four members told the speaker or his staff over several days in late December or early January that they had heard about “inappropriate conduct” at the orientation, with more than one calling it a “rumor.” Williams said the representatives declined to identify who reportedly was involved, and that DeLeo “immediately” informed House counsel James Kennedy after hearing the first complaint on Dec. 19.
Kennedy then referred it to Farquhar, who’s serving as a contracted equal employment opportunity officer because the House has yet to hire a full-time employee for the post. On Jan. 9, Farquhar told House officials that the allegation was “plausible,” Williams said.
Farquhar did not respond to a request for comment from the Globe.
Without a permanent EEO officer, House rules dictate that a special committee on professional conduct, made up of appointments by DeLeo and House minority leader Bradley H. Jones, then conducts an investigation and ultimately decides on any potential punishment. That decision remains confidential, unless the committee decides a member should be censured, removed from a chair or other position of authority, or expelled. In those cases, the recommendation is made public.
Neither DeLeo nor Jones said Tuesday whether they have named the committee members. According to House rules, the identities of the seven members and the very “existence of the committee” are confidential.
Williams said anyone with information about the allegations can contact Farquhar, Kennedy, or Katherine Palmer, the House’s newly named human resources director.
“House rules require that reports of this nature, and any investigations into the reports, be confidential to the fullest extent possible,” Williams said, adding that DeLeo would have no further comment.
It wasn’t clear whether the legislator intends to file her own formal complaint.
“There are House rules in place. Those are what should be followed,” said Representative Tami L. Gouveia, a newly elected Acton Democrat who attended the cocktail reception but said she didn’t witness the alleged incident. “I did a lot of work in domestic violence. It’s up to the person who had the experience to share their story.”
McMurtry initially agreed to a Globe interview, saying in a brief phone call Monday that he was heading into a meeting and could speak afterward.
“It’s mistaken identity,” he said when a Globe reporter asked to speak with him about unspecified allegations made against him from the orientation. He later requested questions, and responded with his statement, via e-mail.
This is not the first time controversy has surrounded McMurtry’s office.
In a separate incident, a onetime McMurtry aide was put on leave after he complained that McMurtry’s chief of staff, Jodi Lanza, had made inappropriate remarks, including calling a woman who worked in another office “Auschwitz Annie,” according to e-mails and interviews with past interns. The aide, Joe Rich, later resigned, was given one year’s salary, and signed a nondisclosure agreement. The chief of staff is still there.
Rich had filed a lengthy and detailed complaint with the House’s human resources staff, which the Globe obtained, and he said he offered to take a lie detector test when lawyers in the speaker’s office accused him of fabricating most of the complaint.
Williams, DeLeo’s spokeswoman, said the House conducted 35 interviews over several weeks as part of its internal investigation into Rich’s complaint, and that Lanza herself confirmed a handful of the more than two dozen allegations, recognizing “that her use of certain terms or nicknames, including ‘Auschwitz Annie’ could be considered offensive.”
Lanza was given a written warning and was ordered to complete 12 hours of “diversity awareness” training, Williams said.
Williams, however, said the House also received complaints about Rich’s behavior as bullying, including from Lanza, and that he was put on paid administrative leave amid the “competing claims.” House investigators couldn’t corroborate the “vast majority of his allegations” and Rich resigned after the probe showed that the work environment had become “untenable,” Williams said.
McMurtry said he could not comment on what he described as a personnel matter. Lanza did not return an e-mail or phone message left at her office.
First elected in 2007 as an unenrolled candidate, McMurtry represents the 11th Norfolk District, which includes Dedham, Westwood, and parts of Walpole. He also is the owner of the Dedham Community Theatre. McMurtry made $92,548 last year, including office expenses and a $15,000 stipend tied to his chairmanship, according to state payroll records.
Last year, the House’s top lawyer reviewed the chamber’s policies after an October 2017 Globe report, in which a dozen women who have worked in and around the State House over the past two decades detailed a climate of harassment and sexual misconduct, perpetrated by powerful men on Beacon Hill.
The House counsel’s subsequent report described a chamber with an “imbedded power dynamic . . . which discourages staff from reporting incidents of harassment due to the fear of retaliation and of jeopardizing one’s career.” A then-state representative also spoke out about her own experience of harassment while serving as a legislative aide before being fired and signing a severance agreement that included a requirement that she not talk about what happened to her.
The report recommended, and the House later adopted, a new structure, including creating the position of an EEO officer who could confidentially investigate complaints. For allegations against state representatives, the new official could initiate private discipline with the member or confidentially suggest a public punishment to an ad hoc committee of elected members.
But the House is still without a permanent appointment. The House Committee on Rules was conducting the search for an EEO officer but did not make a hire “despite multiple postings and candidate interviews,” Williams said. The job opening will be reposted once DeLeo formally names the new committee members, she said.