What’s Wrong About the Sestak Caper

The Sestak-White House “Please Force Pennsylvanians to Keep Arlen Specter as Senator” story has officially cracked wide open, and reports are coming out fast and furious while the White House is spinning faster than Kristi Yamaguchi on speed. It began with Rep. Sestak making himself look determined and incorruptible by telling a radio talk show host on the air that the White House had promised him a plum job if he didn’t challenge Specter in the primary. Once Sesatk won, Rep. Issa of the Republican Truth Squad began demanding that Sestak reveal who made the offer, since it would be a Federal crime (as Sestak had described it) and another Federal law requires Sestak to report Federal crimes committed by government employees. The details will be clarified, corrected and spun some more over the next few days, but the following is clear:

  • The White House—Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and the rest—wanted Arlen “I’ll Be in Whatever Party That Can Prolong My Career” Specter to survive the Democratic primary.  Rep. Sestak seemed to be threatening that goal, so it decided to see if it could dissuade him from running.

What’s wrong with this? Nothing. That’s politics, plain and simple.

  • Emanuel recruited Bill Clinton for the job of taking to Sestak, and he apparently suggested that if Sestak didn’t run against Spector, he would be rewarded with an unpaid position on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

What’s wrong with this? It’s a bribe. 18 U.S.C.§ 600 provides:

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. This statute just makes it illegal; it would be unethical with or without the statute. The White House Counsel is saying that there is nothing “illegal or improper”about the Clinton offer because the position would be unpaid. That seems to be obvious lawyer tap-dancing. I don’t read the statute to require the “benefit” to involve money: if the appointment wasn’t regarded as a “benefit,” why bother to get an ex-President to offer it? The White House Counsel is really saying this: “Oh, please. Nobody enforces this law; and it isn’t improper because this kind of thing is done all the time.” Which, as we all know, is a rationalization for unethical conduct: “Everybody does it.”

  • The initial White House response to Issa’s inquiries was to deny that Sestak was  offered a job. (Ironically, this may have been a Clintonian tactic: he was offered a”position,” but not a “job,” since he would still have been a Congressman. The law above prohibits both.  For a week, Administration officials said nothing “inappropriate” occurred. Then President  promised an “official” response, without being forthcoming about the details. Obviously the White house was scrambling to come up with a framework for the facts that it could defend. 

What’s wrong with this? It’s old-style cover-up mode, exactly what Barack Obama said that he would end once he was elected. The Obama Administration came into power in part because Barack Obama promised to be different from his predecessors. No more clandestine meetings, back-room deals,  slimy political maneuvers; no more White House-orchestrated cover-ups (Valery Plame, Whitewater, Lewinsky, the Lincoln bedroom, Johnny Chung); no more careful parsed legal statements , like Vice President Al Gore’s “no controlling legal authority” explanation for dubious fund-raising activities. And yet here we are. Admittedly, President  Obama’s candor and openness promise already lies in tatters, thanks to the health care bill debacle, but it’s never too late to turn over a new leaf…especiall7 a new leaf that was supposed to sprout in January of 2009.

It’s true: these kinds of deals are cut all the time, and have been for centuries. They are still essentially unethical, because the objective of the deal is to unfairly limit the electoral options of the public through secret deals. Yes, a strict enforcement of 18 U.S.C.§ 600 would criminalize politics, and the argument that an unpaid position doesn’t count might be a successful defense. The offer still smells; if it didn’t, Sestak wouldn’t have used the fact the he rejected it to make himself look better to voters. If it didn’t, the White House wouldn’t have made such a concerted effort to avoid explaining what happened. They know the maneuver was unethical. They know the public would think it was unethical.

And now we know, if we didn’t already, that the Obama Administration isn’t any different from its predecessors, and that all those inspiring promises about “ending business as usual in Washington, D.C.” from candidate Obama were not solemn pledges, but good ol’ campaign, “tell the public what it wants to hear” puffery.

8 thoughts on “What’s Wrong About the Sestak Caper

  1. Jack

    As much as we disagreed on another topic, completely agree here. The fact that the white house counsel is not offering a single actual case citation for the distinction between paid and unpaid positions says it all. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/memorandum-white-house-counsel-regarding-review-discussions-relating-congressman-se

    And notice, they say he was highly qualified for the position, but they only wanted him to have it if he stayed in the house. Basically they want us to interpret the law so that the prestige of having power is not considered a benefit.

    • Thanks Aaron, and great citation/link.
      I’m going to be very interested in your take on Comedy Central’s latest First Amendment cave-in, on the “Drawn Together” game.

  2. My head is spinning right now, but I think it might be more damning that the White House is claiming that they offered him an unpaid advisory position. (My opinions assume that either a Rep. or a Sen. could hold the position equally.)

    Explanation:

    It’s hard to explain or even wrap my head around this, so I could be wrong. But, if the Administration had genuinely been interested in him for a PAID position, regardless of any outside influencing factors, they could have made him a job offer in good faith. Essentially, it conflicts his career options and he would have to decide for himself what direction to pursue. The outcomes are that he declines it and continues to run for Senate, or he accepts it and either has to resign as a Rep. or as a Sen.

    The key to the paid position is that it goes without saying that he’d have to resign his position and his campaign…and if the administration didn’t say it, then it wasn’t attaching “strings” to the offer and the true intentions are ambiguous.

    But this isn’t what happened. What happened was that they offered him a non-paid advisory position that if they were genuinely interested in him, it should not matter if he’s a Rep. or a Sen.

    If the White House agrees that it doesn’t matter if he’s a Rep. or a Sen., then they are in the clear and they need to insist that it was a no-strings attached offer and that he declined it for his own reasons.

    But since they are insisting that it was a “strings attached” offer, they obviously think the unpaid position held “favor” for Rep. Sestak, that HE would VALUE it enough to abandon his Senate campaign.

    What amazes me is their insistence regarding “An Act” versus “Not an Act”. The man was already campaigning for election to the Senate. The Act is that he’s quitting. Quitting is an act. I might follow their logic if he had not yet taken the first step towards a bid for Senate, but alas, he had.

    What it boils down to is this statement:

    The administration, in hopes that Rep Sestak would place VALUE on an advisory position to President Obama, would RESIGN (an “act”) his senatorial campaign.

    • I’m going to respond to my own post. As I said above, it seems to come down to timing and if a Rep. or a Sen. could hold the advisory position.

      Thanks Aaron for the link to the official WHC release. The release seems to suggest that a Senator has more time constraints than a Representative, and that would make him the less optimal candidate for such an advisory position. (BTW – What happened to this position? Was it just for Sestak or did someone else fill it?)

      But what I found more interesting was the timing in the memo. If Sestak was at that point was only “considering” running for Senate, then I have to back track on my comments a bit. If he had already declared his candidacy for Senate, then my previous comments stand.

      I’m pretty sure I don’t see anything ethically wrong with offering a Representative an advisory position if he’s being ambiguous about his future plans.

  3. I blogged that the Administration is on solid ground legally and ethically–legally because the WHC says so, and that’s normally enough. Politically it’s another story–Obama promised transparency, not a six-week stonewall. The cover up is worse…sadly, an old story.

  4. Sooo, who’s gonna get their hand slapped here? The messenger or the one who is trying to cover their patootie and figure Clinton’s name will hog up all the headlines and take the heat off the White House?

    And..this is all rediculous anyway…like sooner or later this wasn’t going to be headline news!

  5. One of the facets I quickly noticed was the overall Clinton Connection. Not only was Bill sent to Sestak with the offer, not only was the entire affair (in conception and execution) reeking of Clintonian politics, but- now- the same old Clinton mantra is being offered that was so common during his administration when “things” came to light. “Well, golly. Everybody does it!”

    No. Everybody doesn’t do it. And even were it so, it would offer no excuse for unethical and illegal conduct for any sitting administration. Either rules, laws and standards apply to all, or they don’t. As a premier mullah of the “don’t” school of thought, it was only “fitting” that the former President undertook this role.

    And, as Janet points out, only an incompetant crook would think that this wouldn’t come out… or would merely be too arrogant to care! And that, also, is classic Bill Clinton.

  6. WHAT DID OBAMA KNOW AND WHEN DID HE KNOW IT??? This simple question brought down a president — one who NEVER promised transparency in government…

    Why hasn’t Janet Napolitano been fired? Why hasn’t Rahm Emanuel’s ties to this Administration been severed? Why, oh why, does Obama lean on the much-maliigned (and, oh, by the way, disbarred), Bill Clinton, to do his oh-so-delicate dirty work? Naivete? Think not. Business as usual and egotism. This is the”new” government? Transparency? Hah.

    And re the Gulf Oil Disaster. Suppose getting and going to bed thinking about it is good enough. And by all means, let’s fall into the Carter trap about talking about it with your DAUGHTER while at the same time taking credit for the technology developed by someone else. Meantime, let’s go ahead with fund raisers and meet a whole two times a day on this environmental disaster, at least one meeting of which is a finger-pointing exercise.

    So,let’s see, Obama is in danger of impeachment because he wants to keep hold of his majority in the mid-term elections. Meantime, the Gulf of Mexico is dying, North & South Korea are about to go to war (this left to Hillary), he’s sucking up to every dictator around the world (because the US is so BAD), Health Care Reform is in danger of repeal, his lovely First Lady is spending her time on the dreaded KETCHUP CARTEL, and he is taking much needed vacations to ease his stress. Good job so far.

    Just don’t hope for impeachment, ’cause the next in line will have us back in the stone age.

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