Editorial: Stanley Rosenberg makes right decision

  • State Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, left, of Amherst, stands outside his Statehouse office in Boston on Friday as he responds to a report of sexual misconduct allegations against his husband Bryon Hefner. M.J. TIDWELL

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Amherst Democrat Stanley Rosenberg, who has earned a reputation during his three decades in the Massachusetts Legislature as a lawmaker who uses his power to serve the people rather than the privileged few, made the right decision Monday to temporarily step aside as Senate president.

Rosenberg agreed to leave the position while allegations of sexual assault and undue influence by his husband are investigated. The Boston Globe reported last week that four men involved in state government have accused Rosenberg’s spouse, Bryon Hefner, of sexually assaulting and harassing them in recent years. Three of the men say Hefner groped their genitals while another said Hefner kissed him against his will. Many of the alleged assaults occurred while Rosenberg was nearby, but the Globe found no evidence that he knew of them.

Members of the Senate Ethics Committee said Tuesday they plan to appoint an independent investigator to determine whether Rosenberg or any staff violated Senate rules.

Attorney General Maura Healey and Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley said Monday they are prepared to open a separate, criminal investigation of Hefner, if any alleged victims come forward.

In the wake of recent reports of sexual harassment on Beacon Hill, Rosenberg rightly declared that the Senate has a “zero-tolerance policy” for such abuse.

But his response to the allegations against his husband has lacked that forceful clarity.

While expressing sorrow for the victims and pledging support for any investigation, Rosenberg felt compelled to stress that the attacks had not occurred inside the Statehouse — as if the fact that they allegedly happened at political events, the back seat of a car, and inside Rosenberg’s and Hefner’s apartment made them less serious.

“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,” Rosenberg said in a statement.

He also insisted that Hefner has not used his personal connection to Rosenberg to wield influence on Beacon Hill.

Those may be Rosenberg’s beliefs. But the Globe article — based not only on interviews with the four men but also with numerous others, accounts bolstered by written exchanges — presents a powerful case that Hefner may have traded on Rosenberg’s influence to aggressively serve his own needs.

Hefner has acknowledged no wrongdoing. On Dec. 1, Rosenberg said his spouse soon will enter an inpatient treatment center for alcohol dependence.

While we have no reason to doubt Rosenberg’s pledge of cooperation, his political clout would have made it hard for an independent investigation to proceed. The four men spoke to the Globe only reluctantly and insisted on anonymity for fear of jeopardizing their reputations and careers.

That fear — along with, for some, a wish not to harm Rosenberg and his progressive agenda — is what kept them silent despite feeling violated, humiliated and powerless.

“That is why I am still sick to my stomach about this,” said one man, who told the Globe that Hefner had grabbed his genitals at a 2015 fundraising event. “Years later, when I did nothing wrong, he (Hefner) has a way of making me feel like I did something wrong. You can’t get away from him. His husband is the Senate president. What am I supposed to do? There’s no one I can file an HR complaint with.”

Rosenberg, 68, and Hefner, 30, have been a couple since 2008. They met while Hefner had a summer job in Rosenberg’s office. Rosenberg said their relationship is “deeply committed” and told the Globe he credits Hefner with making him feel comfortable living openly as a gay man.

“I would not have come out if he had not come into my life,” Rosenberg told the Globe in 2014 as he was rising to the Senate presidency. “It was the greatest gift anyone has given to me.”

Rosenberg’s 2014 remarks came, however, as the Globe was raising questions about whether Hefner was wielding undue influence. At the time, Rosenberg said the answer was no. In a letter to Democratic senators, he wrote, “I have enforced a firewall between my private life and the business of the Senate and will continue to do so.”

With serious questions swirling about whether that firewall has been breached, Rosenberg rightly removed himself temporarily from his leadership role so that the investigations could proceed without fear or favor.