President Barack Obama says “nothing improper” occurred in the case of a House Democratic lawmaker who has alleged someone in the White House offered him a job to drop his primary challenge to Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter.
In his first direct comments on the issue, Obama said yesterday “there will be an official response shortly” from his administration to questions that have been raised about it. He added that he didn’t mean within “weeks or months.”
“I can assure the public that nothing improper took place,” he said at a news conference that focused mainly on the Gulf Coast oil spill.
Representative Joe Sestak defeated Specter, who was backed by Obama, in Pennsylvania’s May 18 primary. During the campaign, Sestak mentioned the alleged job offer from the White House without providing any details on what the position was or who approached him.
Since his victory, Sestak and the White House have been repeatedly asked by reporters and Republican officials to provide specifics about his claim.
All seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee this week gave the matter renewed attention on May 26 by calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to examine whether federal laws were been broken. They also said they believe an investigation led by someone outside the White House is needed.
Sestak, 58, told reporters at the Capitol late yesterday that a White House official on May 26 contacted his brother, Richard Sestak, a lawyer who works on his Senate campaign. “They caught him on his cell phone,” the lawmaker said.
Sestak declined further comment on the conversation. “All this will come out I think as soon as the White House decides to speak,” he said. He also said he believed the White House statement could come as early as today.
Asked about Obama’s comment that nothing inappropriate had occurred, Sestak said “I think the president’s a pretty legitimate person, but we will find out pretty shortly what they have to say.”
The Justice Department’s only official response to the questions surrounding Sestak’s claim has been a May 21 letter the agency sent to Representative Darrell Issa of California, the top Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. In that letter, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich said the administration takes the matter seriously, though it didn’t intend to appoint a special prosecutor to look into it.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Washington-based watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, said the Republicans’ request seems to her more of an election-year political tactic than something that could lead to a prosecution.
Bribery probably doesn’t apply in a case involving a candidate’s decision about whether to stay in a race, and there doesn’t appear to be another federal law that fits, she said. “There’s zero risk of criminal charges,” Sloan said.
Scott Coffina, a Philadelphia attorney who was a White House associate counsel under President George W. Bush, said there could be some risk of a violation of the federal Hatch Act, which restricts executive branch officials from using their jobs to influence the outcomes of elections. The penalty for a violation could include firing, he said.
He also said a criminal misdemeanor charge could apply under a provision of the federal criminal code that precludes promises of employment designed to influence political activity.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said May 23 on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that a review of the matter by White House lawyers found no wrongdoing.
“Lawyers in the White House and others have looked into conversations that were had with Congressman Sestak, and nothing inappropriate happened,” Gibbs said.
The primary win for Sestak derailed the political career of Specter, 80, who was first elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1980. Specter last year switched his party affiliation, citing shifting political leanings in Pennsylvania. His move gave a boost to Obama’s legislative agenda.
Sestak was asked about his job-offer claim when he appeared May 23 on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“I was asked a question about something that happened months earlier, and I felt that I should answer it honestly, and that’s all I had to say about it,” Sestak said.
The Republican candidate in the Pennsylvania Senate race, former Representative Pat Toomey, said on Fox News May 25 that Sestak needs to be “more forthcoming.”
“You know, I think it’s looking increasingly like there’s something that they’re trying to hide,” Toomey said. “And if they would come clean on this, I think we all would be better off.”