PITTSFIELD — Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse is calling for an independent investigation into the role an attorney associated with the state Democratic Party played in shaping an allegation lodged against him last week.
Any such probe, he said, must look not only at actions by the College Democrats of Massachusetts, the group that accused the mayor of inappropriate contact with college students, but into involvement by the state party itself.
"I think evidence will soon show that it was even an attorney for the Massachusetts Democratic Party that, in fact, drafted the email to me on [Aug. 6] that was then printed, word for word, in the Daily Collegian in the first place," Morse said in an interview with The Eagle's editorial board Thursday.
Morse is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, in a Sept. 1 primary in the 1st Congressional District.
Allison Mitchell, the state party's communications manager, said that the organization has a policy of not getting involved with contested primaries, including the Neal-Morse face-off.
But, Mitchell said the Massachusetts Democratic Party did refer people who are members of the College Democrats group to an attorney who volunteers as a legal counsel.
"We referred the individuals expressing these concerns to legal counsel and had no further involvement in the matter," she said.
In two stories this week, The Intercept reported that a member of the College Democrats told other members of the group that he wanted to land an internship with Neal's office. The publication also obtained chat messages that appear to show a plot by a leader of the College Democrats to "sink" the Morse campaign and to try to entrap Morse into engaging in a compromising exchange of messages, which did not happen.
In his interview, Morse said he believes the allegations put forward by the College Democrats, first published Aug. 7 in an unbylined story in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, helped spur not only national media interest, but the largest single-day of fundraising in his candidacy.
"We've had the best fundraising week of the entire campaign, since Friday. [Wednesday] alone, we raised $130,000 from over 3,000 individual contributions. In one day. Our previous high day was $27,000," Morse said.
He said he believes his supporters will not defect over the allegations. Most elected officials in Pittsfield who back Morse remain in his camp.
"I trust the people of Holyoke and the district to come to their own conclusions as more evidence unfolds, that this was no accident, that this happened three weeks before the most competitive primary that this congressman has ever seen," he said.
"Power oftentimes stops at nothing to hold on to power," Morse said. "Just as I think it's highly suspicious, I think the people of this district think it's highly suspicious. People recognize what we're up against. Because we're not just up against Congressman Neal, we're up against the Springfield boss politics."
In a statement released Thursday by his campaign, Neal said his staff had nothing to do with the decision by the College Democrats to bar Morse from any of its future events and to call into question his ethics and morality.
"Any implications that I or anyone from my campaign are involved are flat wrong and an attempt to distract from the issue at hand," Neal said. "I have been and will remain entirely focused on the respective records of myself and Mayor Morse."
Kate Norton, a Neal spokeswoman, said the students involved in the action taken by the College Democrats are not affiliated with the Neal campaign.
Norton said the Neal reelection effort disavows personal attacks on candidates. "We want to be clear — homophobia has no place in campaigns or public life," she said in response to questions about the matter.
She said that Neal will not comment on the allegations themselves and will "await the findings of all independent reviews."
Morse said twice in his interview that he believes a wider inquiry is needed. "I think it's incredibly important that the investigation into the connection between the Democratic Party, the College Dems and the Neal campaign needs to be independently investigated."
Morse, who is 31 and took office at age 22, said that in the days after the Collegian story appeared, "a narrative was allowed to take hold" that, as a gay man, he preyed on college-age students.
That narrative took a beating in a Wednesday night story posted by the Intercept, in which a young man who had exchanged chat messages with Morse appears to have been part of an effort to discredit the mayor's campaign.
"The same student that I was accused of making uncomfortable was, in fact, communicating with other College Democrats that he, No. 1, isn't uncomfortable, but, No. 2, is being explicit and intentional about trying to harm our campaign," Morse said.
After the allegations first landed, Morse said he believed that he never had taken advantage of his position as mayor, or as a part-time lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, to find an intimate partner. He did, though, say that he was sorry if any students "felt uncomfortable with interactions they had with me."
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.