GOP Seeks Special Prosecutor To Probe Sestak Job Offer
In the latest sign that the political controversy over whether or not Joe Sestak was offered a job to induce him to drop out of the race against Arlen Specter, seven Republican Senators have asked the Attorney General to appoint a Special Prosecutor:
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder today, all seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee “urge the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Congressman Joe Sestak’s claim that a White House official offered him a job to induce him to exit the Pennsylvania Senate primary race against Senator Arlen Specter.”
The seven — Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Jon Kyl or Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — allege that the offer would appear to violate federal criminal laws, including 18 U.S.C. 600, which prohibits promising a government position “as consideration, favor, or reward for any political activity” or “in connection with any primary election or political convention or caucus held to select candidates for any political office.”
Rep. Sestak, D-Penn., who defeated Specter in the primary last week, told Comcast’s Larry Kane in February that the White House had offered him a position in exchange for not challenging Specter. White House senior adviser David Axelrod said on Monday that White House lawyers had looked into it and judged everything “perfectly appropriate.”
In all likelihood, there was nothing even remotely illegal here, It seems hard to believe, for example, that there would have been any conversations between Sestak and the White House that would have come anywhere close to approaching what would have been necessary to constitute a violated of the Federal bribery statute, or the statute which makes it a crime to exchange a “thing of value” in an effort to secure a public office, or the statute which makes it a crime to offer a public office in exchange for “political activity.” It’s far more likely that this offer, or whatever it was, occurred the way these things always to in Washington; feelers were sent out, inquiries were made, but the idea that someone called Sestak up and said “drop out of the race and we’ll make you Secretary of The Navy” is just too absurd to believe.
It’s becoming clear, though, that this isn’t a story that could have a life of it’s own regardless of the legal issues involved. That’s why the White House needs to be more forthcoming, and why many Democrats are now saying that Sestak needs to explain himself:
Frustrated by the ongoing distraction, Democrats are stepping up their calls for Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) to resolve the flap surrounding his claim that the White House offered him a job in exchange for dropping out of the Senate primary.
Several Pennsylvania Democrats, including Gov. Ed Rendell, called on Sestak to better explain himself so that his campaign and the White House can move beyond the matter, which has drawn increased coverage in the eight days since he defeated Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and has led to sharp Republican criticism.
“I think he should be more precise, and I think the White House should also give a little more detail,” Rendell told POLITICO.
Rendell joined the ranks of Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who said Tuesday that Sestak needed to explain what he was offered to get out of the Pennsylvania Senate primary, in which the state and national Democratic establishment were lined up behind Specter.
Assuming he was actually ever explicitly offered anything, that is. Frankly, I think that what we’re dealing with here is a case where Sestak has exaggerated the story to a significant degree, partly because it played well as part of his appeal to Democrats upset with the White House’s backing of a former Republican. If there was a conversation, I’m betting it went something like the way Rendell hypothesizes:
Rendell, a strong Specter supporter, emphasized that he had no inside knowledge of what went on between Sestak and the White House but wagered a guess about what transpired: He speculated there most likely was a conversation and a request for Sestak to withdraw from the race against Specter but Sestak perhaps misinterpreted the offer.
“I’m sure the White House said, ‘We value you; we value your experience; you’ve got much to offer, given the type of experience you have,’” Rendell speculated. “Joe may have misinterpreted that as [a reference to the] Navy. I think that’s probably where the truth lies.”
And there would be nothing illegal about that, of course.
Appointing a special prosecutor would be just silly at this point, but Sestak and the White House both just need to come clean, otherwise this will be an issue that Republicans will use against both of them as the 2010 elections approach.
Update: Richard Painter, who served as Chief Ethics Lawyer for two years during the Bush Administration, doesn’t find anything about the Sestak story that arises to the level of a legal problem:
I would prefer if the White House were to stay out of Democratic primaries and focus on the tasks at hand. Then again, President Bush occasionally intervened in Republican primaries (including on behalf of Senator Specter in 2004). The less partisan politics in the White House the better (I would like to see the President abolish the White House Office of Political Affairs). This, however, is nothing new and it hardly rises to the level of a major ethics controversy.
The allegation that the job offer was somehow a “bribe” in return for Sestak not running in the primary is difficult to support. Sestak, if he had taken a job in the Administration, would not have been permitted to run in the Pennsylvania primary. The Hatch Act prohibits a federal employee from being a candidate for nomination or election to a partisan political office. 5 U.S.C. § 7323(a)(3). He had to choose one or the other, but he could not choose both.
The job offer may have been a way of getting Sestak out of Specter’s way, but this also is nothing new. Many candidates for top Administration appointments are politically active in the President’s political party. Many are candidates or are considering candidacy in primaries. White House political operatives don’t like contentious fights in their own party primaries and sometimes suggest jobs in the Administration for persons who otherwise would be contenders. For the White House, this is usually a “win-win” situation, giving the Administration politically savvy appointees in the Executive Branch and fewer contentious primaries for the Legislative Branch. This may not be best for voters who have less choice as a result, and Sestak thus should be commended for saying “no”. The job offer, however, is hardly a “bribe” when it is one of two alternatives that are mutually exclusive.
Some have suggested that Sestak disclose the details of his discussions with the White House about an Administration job. Generally, such discussions are highly confidential, as employment negotiations often are (the Bush Administration took care to prevent leaks about potential appointees and we were usually successful). Although Sestak has no legal obligation of confidentiality, he should get permission from the White House before disclosing further details. If the White House were to consent to disclosure, that would be the exception rather than the rule. At this juncture, disclosure would probably help defuse the controversy, but this is a call for the White House to make.
At this point, I think disclosure is the easiest way to put this story to rest once and for all.