Report: Alex Morse did not violate University policy, UMass Democrats did not coordinate with Neal campaign

Morse did not violate University policy on consensual relationships

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Following a four-month investigation, a report was released Wednesday into whether Alex Morse, the mayor of Holyoke and a former adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts, violated school policy by pursuing dating or sexual relationships with students in past years. 

UMass requested an investigation into the former adjunct professor after the Daily Collegian reported that UMass Democrats, Amherst College Democrats and College Democrats of Massachusetts had sent a joint letter in August disinviting Morse from future events for allegedly using “his position of power for romantic or sexual gain,” the group wrote. Morse had taught Urban Government and Politics at UMass from 2014 to 2019.

Among the key findings in the report, which was conducted by law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, were that:

  • Morse frequently communicated with students on social media “in a manner reasonably interpreted” by those students as suggestive of his intent to pursue dating or sexual relationships.
  • Morse did not violate University policy on consensual relationships because he did not have grading, supervisory, advisory or employment responsibility for the students.
  • Morse’s actions made a number of students uncomfortable and led to the UMass Democrats’ decision to disinvite him from events, but the actions did not “unreasonably interfere” with any student’s academic performance or ability to participate in school programs or activities under the University’s sexual harassment policy.
  • Morse’s “pursuit” of dating or sexual relationships with students “may be inconsistent” with the school’s principles of employee conduct.

On Aug. 6, the letter was sent to Morse alleging that he had regularly matched with the College Democrats’ members on dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr, used the group’s events to meet and later connect with college students on social media, and had sexual contact with college students.

The report of the letter, which gained national media attention in the following weeks, came in the midst of Morse’s run for Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District against Rep. Richard Neal. Morse lost the congressional race on Sept. 3.

Coverage of the letter was met with accusations of an organized political scandal and homophobic tropes used against Morse, who is openly gay.

After reporting by The Intercept, a left-leaning investigative outlet, revealed screenshots of group messages between members of the UMass Democrats’ leadership making light of Morse’s communication with members and voicing support for Neal, his opponent, the group came under scrutiny. Further reporting found that the Massachusetts Democratic Party had assisted the student group, sparking controversy at the state level. 

Investigators found no evidence that Neal and members of UMass Democrats coordinated to harm Morse’s congressional campaign. The findings conflict with The Intercept’s allegation that Tim Ennis, the UMass Democrats’ chief strategist, had coordinated the scandal because of his support for Neal and interest in working for the representative.

In a statement on Aug. 9, Morse admitted to having consensual relationships with college students he met on dating apps but denied using his position as a lecturer for romantic or sexual gain. Morse pledged to support and participate in any investigations and apologized if he made students feel uncomfortable.

Investigators interviewed eight people for the report, including seven UMass students and one UMass alum, whose names were not listed in the report for their privacy. Six of the students were members of UMass Democrats.

Morse declined to be interviewed for the report through an attorney, investigators said. The Daily Collegian reached out to a spokesperson for Morse, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.

In a statement to The Republican, Morse said the report “confirms what I’ve said since this began: that I have never violated Title IX or any UMass employment policy. Any other speculation, rumors, or innuendo characterizing my interactions with students is an extraneous distraction, and outside the scope of the investigation.”

A student who served as a College Democrats board member from 2019-2020 also declined to be interviewed, investigators said. Both Morse and the student appear to have participated in the Democratic State Committee’s investigation, the report said.

Below is a summary of the report’s sections in chronological order. Click below to jump to a specific section.

Early Allegations

Allegations during congressional run

UMass Democrats’ concerns about Morse

Leading up to the letter’s release

State Democratic Party gets involved

Letter leaked and public response

 

Early Allegations

According to Witness Two, it was an “open secret” in UMass Democrats since 2015 that Morse, one of the youngest elected officials in the state, had used dating apps to pursue dating and sexual relationships with students, investigators said. Over the years, members learned from upperclassmen and alumni of Morse’s behavior, the witness said.

In 2018, Witness Two saw Morse on Tinder and deduced that the mayor had his age settings for the app as low as 18 years old, since the witness was 18 years old at the time. Morse and the student did not match, meaning they did not share the intention of connecting. 

Witness Two later told another Student B, who was not interviewed for the report, that he saw Morse on Tinder, investigators said. Student B said he had previously matched with the mayor while he was a student in Morse’s class or soon after the class had ended.

Investigators reviewed Morse’s class rosters and found that Student B was registered for Morse’s class in a year that pre-dates the Consensual Relationships Policy.

“While no witnesses report having heard anyone express discomfort with Morse’s conduct prior to the fall of 2019, the general consensus among UMass Democrats students, past and present, was that, at the very least, Morse’s conduct was ‘weird,’” investigators wrote.

Witness Four, an UMass Democrats alum (2015-2018), told investigators that Morse’s behavior was “widely known,” particularly among the University’s LGBTQ students. He knew of two students who had matched with Morse, but the communication never escalated into in-person meetings or sexual contact.

In September 2019, Witness One, a UMass Democrats board member, matched with Morse on Tinder, the report said. He had participated with Morse during a joint panel at a College Democrats event in the spring prior.

Witness One told investigators he was surprised to have seen Morse on Tinder and that his position as mayor “appealed” to him, leading him to pursue a personal relationship. After the two exchanged messages for a few days, Witness One sent Morse a photo from the panel event and asked, “now, do you remember me?”

Morse replied “yes” and unmatched with Witness One soon after.

(Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr)

 

Witness One told his friends who were in both College Democrats and UMass Democrats of the messaging, the report said. Some of the students were surprised to hear that Morse was on the app, while others had heard of similar instances.

“At least two members of the group, Students A and C voiced their discomfort, specifically because of the age difference between Witness One and Morse,” investigators said.

 Witness One was not initially uncomfortable about matching with Morse, but he later said he had become discomforted that his attraction to Morse stemmed from the “allure” of his position as mayor, the report said.

 

Allegations during congressional run

In July 2019, Morse announced his candidacy for Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District. 

Witness Two, a board member for both College Democrats and UMass Democrats, told investigators the rumors of Morse’s behavior were not discussed among members during the time. Witness Two had also emailed Morse inquiring about positions within the campaign for UMass Democrats members.

Following the College Democrats’ Western Massachusetts kick-off at Holyoke Community College on Oct. 5, 2019, tensions began to rise when Morse followed and messaged at least four members of UMass Democrats/College Democrats within days of the event.

“The group’s discussion of Morse’s overtures to its members on social media reached a fever pitch and the group began to suspect that Morse was using their events to meet and connect with students socially,” the report said.

Morse was invited to the event months earlier by Student C, a College Democrats board member, the report said.

At the event, Witness One moderated the “mayor’s panel” and spoke briefly with Morse, who did not indicate that he remembered Witness One from their interactions on Tinder, the report said. Later that night, Morse followed Witness One on Instagram and sent him a direct message thanking him for moderating the panel, which led to several weeks of communication on the app.

Witness Three was at the event and introduced himself to the mayor, asking about volunteer and internship opportunities with the campaign, the report said. The next day, Morse followed Witness Three on Instagram – Witness Three assumed Morse had found his profile since they have mutual followers. 

The two messaged about campaign activities, the report said. Witness Three said he did not find anything unusual about the communication “because he views Instagram as a platform for platonic connections in contrast to dating apps like Tinder,” investigators wrote.

After hearing about the interaction from another member, Witness One texted Witness Three saying, “Heard the Morse force is uhh tryna get to u too,” according to a screenshot of the text included in the report. 

Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr)

The two members joked about their interest in pursuing a relationship with Morse, but they shared the interpretation that the mayor’s outreach was “problematic and suggestive of Morse’s intent to pursue a dating or sexual relationship with Witness One.”

“In a separate exchange with Witness Two around that same time, Witness Three predicted that it was ‘only a matter of time’ before someone like Morse gets ‘metooed,’” the report said. 

Also at the College Democrats event, Witness Six, another UMass Democrats member, and his female friend followed Morse on Instagram during the event and introduced themselves after, inquiring about volunteer opportunities, the report said. Since the friend talked with Morse the most, they were surprised when Morse messaged only Witness Six on Instagram. 

“Hey man, it was nice meeting you on Saturday!” Morse wrote to the student. Because Morse didn’t message his friend, along with the rumors surrounding the mayor’s behavior with students, Witness Six crafted a “cordial but closed-ended response to Morse because he did not want the discussion to go any further,” investigators said.

Morse responded with a “heart” emoji but did not contact Witness Six again, investigators said.

Witness Six told Witness One about the interaction, to which Witness One told him to “be careful” because he had “heard things about [Morse],” the report said. In a group text, Witness One told Witness Two and Student C about the interaction.

Only one of the three students Morse reached out to following the event, Witness One, continued communicating with him in November 2019 the report said. The student described their messages as “non-intrusive but personal,” such as talking about family and classes while Morse relayed what activities he did that weekend.

“Morse also made references to the two learning more about one another and getting to know each other,” the report said. 

Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr)

The mayor also added Witness One to his “close friends” on Instagram, meaning that the student could see some content that other followers could not see, investigators said.

The tone of their communication changed, Witness One told investigators, after he posted a picture of himself and a friend in Halloween costumes. Witness One felt that the costumes – the student and his friend were dressed as Dalmatians with fishnet shirts and his friend on a leash – were sexually provocative.

“Cute costume!” Morse commented on the picture, to which Witness One replied “Thanks!” and stopped messaging the mayor from that point, the report said. The student did not unfollow or block Morse on Instagram.

“He began to feel that, if Morse intended their relationship to be professional, then Morse would have emailed him rather than communicated via Instagram,” investigators wrote.

Witness One also told investigators that he had become increasingly “creeped out” because of the age gap between Morse, who was 30 years old at the time, and himself as a 19-year-old. 

In the interview with investigators, Witness One said that much of the UMass Democrats board members’ communication about Morse during that time was immature. The group immediately interpreted Morse’s communication with Witness One as an attempt at pursuing a dating or sexual relationship, the report said. 

In a group text, members replied to Witness One’s interaction with Morse: 

“Good job today! Nice seeing you again. I enjoyed the panel,” read the message Morse sent to Witness One, which was shared with the group.

“You have to reply with something [flirty],” Witness Two said.

“Yeah… you should honestly hit him up like I’m kind of joking but also that would low key be cute,” Student C wrote.

“First gent of Holyoke,” Witness Two said, referencing Morse’s position as mayor.

Student C then asked Witness One what stopped him from pursuing a relationship with Morse.

“Cause I would only be doing it for political reasons, I’m only somewhat attracted to him for the clout,” Witness One wrote.

“He’d give you a campaign job,” Student C replied.

“I’m just gonna lead him on and then when I run for something ask for his advice, support and money,” Witness One wrote.

 

UMass Democrats’ concerns about Morse

Despite the “light-hearted” messaging, investigators said, several board members of College Democrats and UMass Democrats expressed serious concern with Morse’s behavior. 

“Everyone is concerned… This is mildly concerning… But also deeply amusing and I want to see how far this goes,” a board member wrote in several text messages to another member who Morse reached out to. 

“who is everyone,” the student replied. 

“Like everyone… Across America,” the board member wrote. 

Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr)

Several witnesses said that Student A, a board member, had told fellow board members that she knew of at least two students who had sexual contact with Morse, one of whom felt uncomfortable following the encounter, the report said. At the time, she was one of the most outspoken members of UMass Democrats for limiting interaction with Morse.

Following the panel at HCC, several board members began learning about student-professor relationship policy at UMass, with one text message reading that “Alex Morse could get fired.” 

The board began to discuss their concerns about Morse around that time and decided to not promote opportunities for members to work with the mayor during the congressional campaign.

Board members continued to learn of Morse’s interactions with other students in College Democrats and UMass Democrats, including the mayor adding another student to his “close friends” Instagram story and being “flirtatious” as a different student described, investigators said. 

In the summer of 2020, Witness Seven – another UMass Democrats member – and her boyfriend decided to “test” whether Morse solely communicated with male students, the report said. She was already following the mayor on Instagram, so she unfollowed him and followed him again at the same time that her boyfriend began following Morse, in hopes of getting the mayor’s attention.

“As Witness Seven suspected, Morse followed her boyfriend back within a day, but never followed Witness Seven back,” investigators wrote. “She believed this proved her theory that Morse was only communicating with male students.”

Due to ongoing concerns, UMass Democrats purposely began distancing the group from Morse in Spring 2020, the report said. The board also withheld intern opportunities that Max Clermont, Morse’s campaign manager, asked them to promote. 

Several members of UMass Democrats were unaware of the board’s discomfort with Morse, as several of them – both male and female – had communicated with him for years, volunteered with the campaign and openly supported his candidacy, investigators found. 

Several witnesses also recalled Witness Two expressing bias against Morse in support of Neal, calling himself a “Neal Stan” in a text message and discussing the ramifications of Morse’s behavior with students if it became public knowledge, the report said. 

“Neal will give me an internship… Morse will give me other things,” Witness Two wrote.

Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr)

Witness Two also shared a meme, which he clarified to investigators as a joke, referencing the possibility that he could leak the story of Morse’s interactions with students to Politico, a news outlet which had been pursuing the story.

“There was no evidence of Witness Two or any other UMass Democrats board member having contacted Rep. Neal or his campaign about Morse’s alleged conduct,” investigators said.

Witness Two was entirely absent from conversations regarding the letter until the day before it was released, investigators found.

There is also no evidence that anyone in the Neal campaign had knowledge or involvement in the matter, the report said.

 

Leading up to the letter’s release

“Big thumbs down… if you know, you know,” Student E tweeted in response to a post supporting Morse in July 2020. 

Clermont reached out to Students C and E, inviting them to talk about the matter referenced, but neither student responded, the report said. Shortly after, Witness One received his first message from Morse on Instagram since the Halloween costume comment.

“I was told I may have made you uncomfortable by communicating with you via Instagram message. I want to sincerely apologize for making you feel uncomfortable,” Morse wrote in part of the message. “I am happy to talk with you over the phone and discuss more if you’d like.

Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr)

Witness One did not respond and immediately blocked Morse, the report said. 

Members of UMass Democrats and College Democrats began talking with the media because they believed Morse’s conduct made him “unfit for congressional office,” investigators said. 

As Morse’s campaign gained national attention with prominent endorsements and media attention, board members began to feel pressured to publicize their feelings about Morse, Witness One told investigators. He described a feeling of “urgency” and “pressure” as media inquiries persisted.

Student A, who was extremely vocal about distancing the group from Morse, discussed posting a statement on Twitter with other members, according to text messages in the report.

“Can I just expose Alex Morse on Twitter,” Student A wrote. “Aren’t we part of the problem if we stay silent. It’s a serious question I’ve been asking myself.”  

“It’s just so gross and it says something about his character which his voters deserve to know,” Student E replied.

Another UMass Democrats board member said, “I think it’s good if he gets exposed.”

Student A and Witness One drafted a statement to be posted on Twitter, but ultimately did not go forward with it, the report said. The statement formed the basis of the letter that would eventually be sent to Morse.

 

State Democratic Party gets involved

Student C began contacting the Massachusetts Democratic Party officials for advice on the best way to move forward with the statement, Witness One told investigators. He said Student C spoke with an attorney for the Young Democrats of Massachusetts, who advised against making a public statement to protect the identities of the accusers in case of legal action. 

The group also met with Gus Bickford and Veronica Martinez, two state party officials, via videoconference on July 28. The students spoke of the allegations against Morse, to which Bickford was surprised since he knew Morse and never suspected inappropriate behavior, the report said. 

Bickford sympathized with the students’ situation and suggested that they consult with Jim Roosevelt, the state party’s attorney, to get his recommendation, investigators said. 

Student C met with Bickford and Martinez again, relaying their advice to vote on a statement to send to the Morse campaign, the report said. The group could then choose to leak it to the press if wanted, according to a text message.

On Aug. 6, Student C sent the letter to the Morse campaign on behalf of the College Democrats, UMass Democrats and Amherst College Democrats.

 

Letter released and public response

On Aug. 7, the letter was provided to the Massachusetts Daily Collegian by a source inside one of the student organizations. Soon after the report of the letter, the issue gained national media attention.

By Aug. 11, a “competing narrative emerged” fueled by the “jovial” nature of the UMass Democrats’ communication with each other about the situation and the serious tone of the letter, investigators wrote.

Leaked messages sent to media outlets by non-board members of UMass Democrats described Witness Two’s hope that the leaking of the allegations would “sink [Morse’s] campaign, the report said.

In response to the articles, which were first reported by The Intercept, “numerous” people emailed Witness One and Two “condemning the allegations against Morse as unsubstantiated and accusing the students of promoting homophobic stereotypes about members of the LGBTQ community.”

“Backlash against them and other UMass Democrats board members was widespread and sometimes vitriolic,” investigators wrote. 

Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr)

UMass Democrats did not retract the statement, but instead sent an email apologizing for the “homophobic backlash” that followed media reports of Morse, investigators said. 

Several board members did not intend for the letter to be made public or alienate Morse supporters within the group, Witness Seven told investigators. 

Matt Berg can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.