Details of UMass’ $200,000 Contract on Alex Morse Emerge

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse campaigning in a western Massachusetts US House Democratic primary, in which his candidacy was upended by fabricated charges made by students at UMass Amherst — which is now investigating him.
instagram/ Alex.Morse

The University of Massachusetts is prepared to spend as much as $200,000 to investigate an out gay candidate for a US House seat in western Massachusetts who was the object of fraudulent charges that likely contributed to that candidate losing in the September 1 Democratic primary.

“University hereby engages Firm to investigate, and provide advice and legal counsel, to the UMass Amherst campus leadership regarding allegations of inappropriate behavior by one Alex Morse in his capacity as an [sic] UMass employee,” reads the contract between UMass and Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, a Boston law firm, that Gay City News obtained under the Massachusetts open records law.

Natashia Tidwell, a partner at the firm, will lead the investigation into Morse. Her time will be compensated at a rate of $475 per hour and she will be assisted by an associate, Angella Middleton, whose time will be compensated at $360 per hour. Those rates are for the first $100,000 incurred for the work. After $100,000, Saul Ewing agreed to reduce the hourly rates by five percent, and by 10 percent after it has billed the university $200,000.

The contract specifies that Tidwell will report to the UMass general counsel’s office. The investigation will not be supervised by any of the nine offices at the university that currently handle Title IX complaints. The UMass website does not list the general counsel’s office among the organizations that employees and students can contact to file a complaint under Title IX. All work under the contract will be protected from disclosure under attorney-client privilege.

Morse, the mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and a progressive, announced in 2019 that he would challenge Richard Neal, a powerful Democrat who has held that seat since 1988 and currently chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

In October 2019, some members of the College Democrats of Massachusetts (CDMA) decided to smear Morse as a sexual predator who used his status as mayor and a lecturer at UMass from 2014 through 2019 to seduce students, according to reporting by The Intercept, an online news outlet. Timothy Ennis, one of the students, hoped to win a job working for Neal. Andrew Abramson, then the president of a CDMA chapter, assisted and other CDMA members may have been involved. They were helped by senior officers in the Massachusetts State Democratic Party.

Gerry Leone, the UMass general counsel, won’t answer questions about any of the university’s procedures on investigating Title IX complaints while his $200,000 in inquiry into Alex Morse is ongoing.UMass Office of the President

The CDMA members unsuccessfully pitched the Morse story to media outlets for several months. Just three weeks before the primary, the CDMA executive board approved a letter that was sent to Morse that made vague and unsubstantiated allegations of sexual misconduct with students and told him he was no longer welcome at CDMA meetings. The letter was leaked to the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, a UMass student newspaper, which published portions of the letter on August 7. Parts of Morse’s statement were included in the story. Morse, 31, said that he had enjoyed consensual sex with other adult men, some of whom he met on a social media app and happened to be students.

Consensual sex between adults of the same sex is legal in Massachusetts and across the country. UMass policy allows faculty to have sex with students who they are not teaching, grading, or supervising. Many gay men use social media apps, such as Tinder and Grindr, to meet other men for sex.

UMass announced on August 8 that it would investigate Morse “to determine whether the alleged actions during his time as a university lecturer were in violation of university policy or federal Title IX law.”

By August 12, Tidwell had signed a document attesting that she had read certain documents provided to her by UMass, and Gerry Leone, UMass’ general counsel, signed the contract the next day. While UMass rushed to announce the investigation during a hotly contested Democratic primary, it was in no rush to end the investigation.

“This Agreement shall commence on August 12, 2020 and continue until terminated,” the contract reads.

UMass issued a press release on August 14 announcing the Tidwell hire and asked “members of the UMass Amherst community, as well as anyone else who may have relevant facts regarding the allegations” to contact Tidwell.

No student has come forward publicly to object to Morse’s conduct and UMass has refused to say if its invitation to “anyone” at UMass to complain has produced a complaint.

In a series of stories, The Intercept proved that the allegations against Morse were fabricated, but those stories were no match for local media that largely pushed the allegations and Neal and his political allies who continued to treat them as true or at least credible. Morse lost the primary by roughly 20 points.

It is unclear why UMass has elected to run the investigation through its general counsel’s office as opposed to using one of the university’s nine Title IX offices.

Title IX is part of a federal law enacted in 1972 and is intended to address discrimination against women at school districts or universities that receive federal funding. In 2011, the Obama administration expanded the scope of Title IX to require those federally-funded entities to address sexual harassment and sexual assault. The recipients had to create grievance processes to handle this new class of Title IX complaints that have been praised for making schools safer but also criticized as unfair and biased toward those accused in a complaint.

In 2017, the Trump administration rescinded the Obama “Dear Colleague” letter that created the Title IX regime and began the process of issuing regulations governing Title IX in 2019. It issued final regulations in May of this year that took effect on August 14, the day after the UMass general counsel signed the contract with Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr.

In June, public schools and universities, including UMass, in 18 states sued the US Department of Education to stop the new regulations. In a June affidavit submitted by Leone in that lawsuit, he wrote, “Over 400 employee and student Title IX/ sexual misconduct cases have been reported during the past two fiscal years (July I through to June 30). Of those 400 reports, UMass teams investigated 200 complaints.”

Gay City News sent detailed questions to Leone in an email, including one asking if his office handled any of the 200-plus complaints not processed by the Title IX teams and if any of those were farmed out to a private law firm. In response, Leone wrote, “During the pendency of an investigation, the [Office of General Counsel] will not be discussing the matter externally with anyone not involved in the investigation.”

Reached via email, Morse indicated a willingness to comment, but did not respond to a follow-up email and a phone message.

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