President Bill Clinton acted as an intermediary for the White House in talks with Representative Joe Sestak about giving up his plan to run in Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary, according to a memorandum from the White House counsel’s office.
Clinton, acting at the request of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, discussed with Sestak the possibility of the two-term representative taking an unpaid position on an advisory board and remaining in the U.S. House rather than challenging Senator Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary, the memo said.
White House Counsel Robert Bauer concluded that there was no improper or illegal behavior in the contact.
“Such discussions are fully consistent with the relevant law and ethical requirements,” Bauer wrote in the memo released by the White House yesterday.
Sestak confirmed the White House account, saying that Clinton called him by telephone last July and expressed concern about his prospects in the Senate race and saying Emanuel suggested appointment to a presidential board and remaining in the House. Sestak said he declined and the matter was never raised again.
“If I ever thought anything had been wrong about this, I would have reported it,” Sestak told reporters at the Capitol.
A spokesman for Clinton, Matt McKenna, declined to comment and referred all questions to the White House.
Bauer’s statement follows repeated calls from Republicans for President Barack Obama’s administration to explain a remark Sestak made in February that he was offered a job if he halted his challenge to Specter. Sestak had previously refused to elaborate on the allegation.
Representative Darrell Issa, a vocal critic of the administration, said Bauer’s report wasn’t enough. He and Texas Representative Lamar Smith sent a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller asking for an investigation.
“Admissions that the White House intentionally sought to manipulate the outcome of a Democratic Senate primary strike at the heart of our democracy,” they said in a statement. “Only a full criminal investigation can restore integrity to our election process.”
They asked for a response by June 11.
The White House backed Specter in the race, after he switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat last year, giving a boost to Obama’s ability to get his agenda through Congress.
Bauer said the White House was seeking to avoid a divisive Senate primary and that previous administrations have discussed alternative options for individuals considering campaigns for public office.
The former president’s involvement indicates the high level of attention given in the White House to helping Specter win re- election. Sestak, who spent 31 years in the Navy and retired as a three-star admiral, served in the Clinton White House as director for defense policy on the National Security Council, according to his congressional website. Emanuel also worked in the Clinton administration.
Sestak, 58, ultimately defeated Specter in the May 18 Pennsylvania primary. Specter, 80, was first elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1980.
Bauer dismissed reports that Sestak was offered the position of secretary of the Navy because Obama had nominated Ray Mabus to the post a month before Specter switched parties in April 2009.
In June and July of 2009, Clinton, at the request of Emanuel, did inquire whether Sestak would be interested in an uncompensated position on a presidential or other executive branch advisory board, the memo said. Sestak declined such an appointment as an alternative to his Senate campaign.
“It has been suggested that discussions of alternatives to the Senate campaign were improperly raised with the congressman,” Bauer wrote. “There was no such impropriety.”
Sestak previously has refused to specify what was offered or how the approach was made. As questions were raised by Republican lawmakers, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declined to provide details except to say the matter was looked at by White House lawyers and they found no inappropriate conduct.
Obama, in response to a question at a news conference May 27, said, “I can assure the public that nothing improper took place.”
“The allegations in this matter are very serious and, if true, suggest a possible violation of various federal criminal laws intended to safeguard our political process from the taint of bribes and political machine manipulation,” the seven Republicans wrote in a letter to Holder.
While the Democratic Party had a “legitimate” interest in avoiding a divisive primary battle, it also had an interest in wanting to keep Sestak in the House, Bauer’s memo says.
“By virtue of his career in public service, including distinguished military service, Congressman Sestak was viewed to be highly qualified to hold a range of advisory positions in which he could, while holding his House seat, have additional responsibilities of considerable potential interest to him and value to the executive branch,” Bauer wrote.