Disturbing allegations of sexual assault against the husband of Senate President Stanley Rosenberg roiled Beacon Hill on Thursday, challenging Rosenberg's capacity to lead the chamber as Gov. Charlie Baker and others called for a full investigation into the "distressing" claims made by four men.
Late Thursday, Rosenberg indicated he would back a probe led by two of his Senate colleagues.
Rosenberg's husband Bryon Hefner was accused in a Boston Globe report of groping three men and kissing another against his will. All four men have professional ties to state government and the State House, and described incidents that took place in social settings related to their work on Beacon Hill.
The Senate's top Republican said he was working with Democrats to "develop a structure and process" for an investigation, and Baker said a full review should commence "pronto."
"Frankly, I'm appalled by the allegations. They're disturbing, they're distressing, and I really felt for the people, when I read the story, who came forward. And I think it's really important for the Senate, as soon as possible, to conduct a thorough investigation of the allegations," Baker said in his office.
Attorney General Maura Healey also issued a statement calling for a full investigation, while Republican U.S. Senate candidate John Kingston called on Rosenberg to resign.
"These allegations are deeply disturbing. We need a full investigation and we need to send a clear message that harassment and assault of any kind will not be tolerated on Beacon Hill," Healey said.
Judiciary Committee Chairman William Brownsberger said he had no reason to abandon his support for Rosenberg, but neither he nor other senators seemed certain of how the fallout would impact the Senate moving forward. Several senators denied rumors swirling through the building Thursday afternoon that they were already involved in succession planning.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said in a statement Thursday night that he was working with Majority Leader Harriette Chandler to initiate an investigation.
"Without a doubt, there must be a full and fair process by which the facts should be evaluated, and any wrongdoing in this case should be dealt with swiftly and properly addressed. No one should manipulate, harm, or abuse anyone else and when they do, there must be appropriate consequences," Tarr said.
At 8:50 p.m. on Thursday, Rosenberg, who hours earlier said he was hearing about the allegations for the first time, called for an investigation.
"I am calling for an independent investigation of the serious allegations in today's Globe story regarding the activities of my husband and their effects on Senate business," Rosenberg said in a statement. "Further, I am recusing myself from any matters relating to this investigation and these allegations, and authorizing Majority Leader Harriette Chandler to serve as the majority party lead for this investigation, in consultation with Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and Senate Counsel. I leave it to them to structure an appropriate process to conduct this investigation as soon as possible."
The governor said either the Senate Ethics Committee or a independent investigator could conduct the probe, and it would be for the Senate to decide whether Rosenberg retains his position while that takes place.
"I think the decision about whether the Senate president steps down during that investigation should be decided by the Senate and the Senate president. Remember, these are allegations. They're incredibly disturbing and depressing, and as I said, my heart sank for the people associated with them in that story," Baker said.
The men who claimed they were groped and subjected to unwanted sexual advances by Hefner include a Beacon Hill aide, a lobbyist, a public policy advocate and a man who worked on Beacon Hill when Hefner allegedly put his hand up his shorts at a fundraiser.
Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat who said this week he plans to seek re-election next year, was not in the State House when the story was first posted online, and did not return the building, according to staff. His office issued a statement in the afternoon, and indicated that Rosenberg would have nothing more to say on Thursday.
"This is the first I have heard about these claims. 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. 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," Rosenberg said in his afternoon statement.
Hefner issued a statement to the Globe through his attorney, who was not identified. Hefner said he was "shocked to learn of these anonymous and hurtful allegations," and, "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."
With the report coming at the start of the Senate's holiday recess, not many senators were in the building, but some who were expressed deep concern over the allegations contained in the Globe report.
"This is a difficult day for the Senate yet an even more difficult day for the men who had the courage to come forward and share their experiences," Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry told the News Service in a statement. She said, "I'm saddened by this story. I have not talked to the Senate president, but we have to work through this as a body."
Brownsberger, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, read the story on an aide's cell phone before commenting to a reporter. "They are very detailed and very troubling," he said of the details in the report.
Asked if the Senate has a role to play in the situation and what the path forward would look like, Brownsberger said, "I've got to think that through."
The Belmont Democrat later visited the Senate President's office to "chat," and afterward told the News Service that Rosenberg continues to have his support. "I do. I think he's been a great Senate president and I think that his husband, as far as I know, has played no role in the material workings of the Senate. I don't see him around," Brownsberger said.
Rosenberg, 68, married Hefner, 30, in 2016. The two met when Hefner took a summer job in Rosenberg's office before he became Senate president in 2015, and Rosenberg has credited Hefner will helping him to live openly as a gay man.
The Globe reported stories of three men who described separate incidents in 2015 and 2016 when Hefner, in social settings outside the State House, grabbed their genitals. A fourth man said that in the summer of 2016 Hefner forcefully kissed him as he and his partner were preparing to leave a party.
The men described feeling afraid to come forward because of Hefner's relationship with the Senate president, whose support they felt they needed either to advance their careers or to achieve their professional policy objectives.
Baker said that regardless of who investigates Hefner's behavior people need to feel comfortable sharing their stories.
"I do think they need to be crystal clear with the people who are involved in this that they can speak about their concerns and raise the issues that are raised in that story without worrying about consequences, because it was very clear reading that story that some of those folks were very concerned about the consequences associated with coming forward, and I think it's incumbent on the Senate to put together a plan that provides those people with comfort and security that they can speak specifically about their allegations without worrying about retribution," Baker said.
The president's staff on Thursday bristled at suggestions in the story, allegedly advanced by Hefner, that he and Rosenberg were a team and that he had influence in the Senate, where he neither worked nor served as an elected official.
It's not the first time Hefner has been accused of meddling in Senate business, and Rosenberg even assured the public that there would be a "firewall" between his personal and professional lives before assuming the presidency.
"Bryon has never played a role in our office informally or formally. Period. End of story," a top Rosenberg advisor told the News Service.
Sen. John Keenan said he doesn't know what next steps should be taken, and he said he has not experienced Hefner interfering with Senate business.
"It's concerning," Keenan said, adding, "I don't know enough of the details to know exactly what occurred."
Other members of the Senate were more reluctant to react. A dozen senators contacted by cell phone did not return calls seeking comment, while Sen. Barbara L'Italien declined to comment in person and Sen. Michael Rush said, "Oh, boy," after having the allegations described to him, but offered nothing further as he left to celebrate his birthday.
Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka declined through a spokeswoman to comment.
Chandler, a Worcester Democrat who was tasked this fall by Rosenberg to lead an effort of six female senators to review the Senate's sexual harassment policies, also waved off reporters questions Thursday after the story broke.
Chandler opened the door to Tarr's office around 3:30 p.m. to find a handful of reporters waiting in the senator's lobby hoping to speak with the Republican leader. Accompanied by Rosenberg's counsel and senior policy advisor James DiTullio and Communications Director Mara Dolan, Chandler immediately turned around and walked in the other direction, silently gesturing that she had nothing to say.
Chandler and Dolan ultimately entered Rosenberg's office from the main entrance after finding a side door to be locked.
Kingston called on U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren to use her stature to demand that Rosenberg "resign immediately," along with Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, who have both been accused of sexual misconduct.
During a meeting with reporters this week, Rosenberg promoted the policies in place in the Senate to address sexual harassment.