The Obama administration on Friday admitted that they tried to pull Rep. Joe Sestak out of the Pennsylvania Senate primary last year, but said they did so only through using former President Bill Clinton to dangle unpaid positions on a board or commission and that they broke no laws or ethics rules.
A White House memo released midday Friday from White House Counsel Bob Bauer said that there was no “impropriety” and that the administration’s actions were “fully consistent with the relevant law and ethical requirements.”
Sestak, who defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter in the primary last week, said late in the day that he believes Clinton offered him a spot on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, during a conversation in the summer of 2009.
“I heard presidential board and I think it was intel,” Sestak told reporters outside the Capitol, who said the mention of a spot on the board lasted 30 to 60 seconds as part of a longer phone conversation.
Sestak said he “almost interrupted” to tell Clinton he wasn’t interested. “I think I did a little bit.”
“There was nothing wrong that was done,” Sestak said.
But Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, said that the White House version of events still represented “an illegal quid pro quo.” He and several other Republican House members sent a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller requesting a “full criminal investigation.”
“Because of the alleged involvement of high ranking Administration officials, any investigation into criminal activity by the White House should be spearheaded by the FBI,” Issa said in a statement.
Additionally, while the White House and Sestak story is that the congressman would have kept his seat in the House while serving on the board in an unpaid position, he could not have done so according to the PIAB’s current rules.
“The Board consists of not more than 16 members appointed by the President from among individuals who are not employed by the Federal Government,” says the White House website’s description of the PIAB.
Whatever the outcome, the incident will stand as a major stumble for a president who came to office in large part due to promises he made to change the way Washington operates.
The Obama administration said they offered Sestak, through Clinton, “service on a Presidential or other Senior Executive Branch Advisory Board,” according to a two-page memo released from the White House.
“Efforts were made in June and July of 2009 to determine whether Congressman Sestak would be interested in service on a Presidential or other Senior Executive Branch Advisory Board, which would avoid a divisive Senate primary, allow him service to the public in a high-level advisory capacity for which he was highly qualified,” the memo reads.
Any position would have been “uncompensated,” said the memo, which President Obama alluded to Thursday in a press conference.
And the memo said that “White House staff did not discuss these options with Congressman Sestak.”
Sestak gave a similar version of events in a statement: “[Clinton] said that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had spoken with him about my being on a Presidential Board while remaining in the House of Representatives. I said no.”
Issa, the ranking member on the House Government Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said “the White House has admitted today to coordinating an arrangement that would represent an illegal quid-pro-quo as federal law prohibits directly or indirectly offering any position or appointment, paid or unpaid, in exchange for favors connected with an election.”
He cited Federal statute 18 USC 600, which says the following:
Whoever, directly or indirectly, promises any employment, position, compensation, contract, appointment, or other benefit, provided for or made possible in whole or in part by any Act of Congress, or any special consideration in obtaining any such benefit, to any person as consideration, favor, or reward for any political activity or for the support of or opposition to any candidate or any political party in connection with any general or special election to any political office, or in connection with any primary election or political convention or caucus held to select candidates for any political office, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both
Issa also pointed out that Sestak has repeatedly said he was offered a “job.”
“The White House has offered a version of events that has important differences from what Congressman Sestak has been saying for months – that he was offered a ‘job’ by ‘someone in the White House’ in exchange for leaving the Pennsylvania Senate race,” Issa said.
Issa even went so far, in an interview on Fox News, as to compare the situation to Watergate in its early stages.
“Richard Nixon had some deniability from the Plumbers until he began becoming part of the cover up,” Issa said. “At this point, 10 weeks later, lots of witness tampering or at least witness interrogation by people who are self-serving, uh, we’re beginning to go down that same road.”
“It’s now time for the president to say, ‘Enough is enough, I promised to have higher integrity.’ And that will include having somebody on the outside tell us what we did right or wrong.’”
Numerous conservatives questioned whether an unpaid position on a board was a powerful or prestigious enough job to plausibly represent something that would lure any congressman away from running for the Senate.
Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey said on Fox News that if Sestak was offered a position on a board created by executive order — such as the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board — that would not violate USC 600.
“It has to be a position made possible in whole or in part by an act of Congress,” Mukasey said.
If Sestak was offered a job as Secretary of the Navy, Mukasey said, that would be “very different.” Mukasey said that he would expect either the Justice Department’s public integrity section or the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to conduct an independent review of the matter.
The White House memo aggressively defended the Obama administration’s actions, saying that while “it has been suggested that discussions of alternatives to the Senate campaign were improperly raised with the Congressman … there was no such impropriety.”
The memo also implied that Emanuel’s actions vis a vis Clinton had the support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
“The Democratic Party leadership had a legitimate interest in averting a divisive primary fight and a similarly legitimate concern about the Congressman vacating his seat in the House,” the memo said.
And the White House memo justified Emanuel’s actions by saying that “there have been numerous, reported instances in the past when prior administrations — both Democratic and Republican, and motivated by the same goals — discussed alternative paths to service for qualified individuals also considering campaigns for public office.”
“Such discussions are fully consistent with the relevant law and ethical requirements,” the memo concludes.
Some have said that such job or favor offers is politics as usual. What was highly unusual about the Sestak case is that Sestak spoke up about the offer.
The White House timed the memo’s release just as the president landed in the Gulf Coast to survey damage from a massive underwater oil spill.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, traveling with Obama, tweeted a few minutes after 11 a.m. that the president had “just landed.” About 20 minutes later, the memo went out from the White House press office in D.C.
Such timing guaranteed that at the very least, coverage on TV would be bifurcated between pictures of the president and talking heads discussing the White House memo.
According to the memo, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel asked Clinton to talk to Rep. Joe Sestak about his campaign for Senate in Pennsylvania — and inquire whether the Democrat would be open to serving the public through avenues other than the Senate.
The memo says that Sestak was not offered the Secretary of the Navy job, as Pres. Obama “had announced his intent to nominate Ray Mabus to be Secretary of the Navy on March 26, 2009, over a month before Senator Specter announced he was becoming a member of the Democratic Party.”
The Obama administration claims that Clinton’s role was to “gauge [Sestak's] seriousness about the race.”
Republicans have requested an investigation by the Justice Department into whether or not Sestak was offered a job on the condition of withdrawing from the Democratic Senate primary, but that request was denied by Attorney General Eric Holder. Some Democrats, too, are demanding that the White House clear the air on the matter. Earlier this week, The Daily Caller looked into what federal laws could have been broken if such an offer took place.
The president, senior White House adviser David Axelrod and Gibbs had previously both denied any wrongdoing on the part of the White House.