The Massachusetts House is investigating a "plausible" allegation of inappropriate conduct involving at least one representative, stemming from an alleged incident at the orientation session for new members held at last month at UMass Amherst.
After the Boston Globe reported late Wednesday that Dedham Rep. Paul McMurtry is alleged to have "walked up behind an incoming legislator and grabbed her backside last month during an orientation cocktail hour for newly elected lawmakers," House Speaker Robert DeLeo's office on Wednesday night confirmed that four representatives have told him or his team about "inappropriate conduct" at the orientation last month.
McMurtry was not immediately available Thursday morning, but he denied the charges in a statement to the Globe.
The speaker's office said the allegation was "characterized by more than one member as a 'rumor,'" and that the four representatives who reported having heard about the issue to DeLeo "denied first-hand knowledge of the incident and declined to identify the individuals reported to be involved."
The speaker's office did not name any of the representatives alleged to have been involved.
The first complaint came on Dec. 19, according to DeLeo's office, the second on Dec. 27, then Dec. 29 and most recently on Jan. 4. The orientation was held at UMass from Dec. 12 through Dec. 14.
DeLeo's office said all information was turned over to the House's contracted Equal Employment Opportunity Officer, who on Jan. 9 determined the allegation was plausible and warranted a full investigation.
"The only thing I can say at this time is the fact that, first of all, the House has a really comprehensive set of rules to handle, to deal with situations such as this. I can tell you from my perspective as speaker, I kept to those rules and acted accordingly," DeLeo told reporters after speaking at a State House event on Thursday morning.
DeLeo declined to take additional questions from reporters. House Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad also declined to comment.
Under new House rules adopted last session and in effect this session as temporary rules, plausible allegations against House members are referred to a Special Committee on Professional Conduct, whose secret membership is appointed by the speaker and minority leader.
The speaker's office said the House rules "require that reports of this nature, and any investigations into the reports, be confidential to the fullest extent possible. As such, the Speaker will have no further comment on this matter."
The EEO officer is a position created last session as part of reform to the House rules meant to address an "overarching perception" that there are minimal confidentiality protections for people who report sexual harassment in the Massachusetts House.
On Dec. 20 -- the day after the first complaint of inappropriate behavior was brought to the speaker's attention and shared with House Counsel James Kennedy -- the House Rules Committee announced that it had appointed Katherine Palmer to serve as the House's chief of human resources but said that it was unsuccessful in hiring an EEO officer, to whom all harassment complaints would be referred for investigation.
"Despite multiple postings and candidate interviews by both staff and Members, the Committee has been unable to identify a suitable candidate," the committee said in a statement. "The position will [be] reposted in early January."
In lieu of a permanent EEO officer, the House voted in an informal session on Dec. 20 to allow Kennedy, the House counsel, to contract with an outside consultant to serve as EEO officer for six months.
Kennedy acted quickly -- according to DeLeo's office, on the same day he was authorized to contract with an EEO officer, Kennedy "referred the matter to the House’s contract Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Officer for an independent assessment as required."
The House initially hoped to hire both an HR director and EEO officer by August in order to have the new system for receiving, investigating and resolving complaints in full effect by the start of the 2019-2020 session.