WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Friday that it used the promise of a presidential appointment to try to get a Pennsylvania congressman to abandon a planned primary challenge to White House favorite Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and that it used former President Bill Clinton as the middleman.
Brushing aside charges that the act was illegal and calls for a special prosecutor, the White House said the move was proper and violated no laws.
"We have concluded that allegations of improper conduct rest on factual errors and lack a basis in the law," said the seven-paragraph statement from White House Counsel Robert Bauer.
President Barack Obama had no comment on the statement Friday while he was traveling to the scene of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in Louisiana. On Thursday, when he was asked about Sestak at a White House news conference, he refused to comment in detail.
"There will be an official response shortly on the Sestak issue, which I hope will answer your questions," he said. "I can assure the public that nothing improper took place. But as I said, there will be a response shortly on that issue."
Republicans quickly rejected the White House's claim of innocence, saying the offer of even a nonpaying job appeared to represent inside political favors at best and a crime at worst.
"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," said Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the senior Republican on the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Issa said that Section 600 of the U.S. Code prohibited promising any employment or position "to any person as consideration, favor or reward for any political activity or for the support of or opposition to any candidate" in a general or primary election.
"President Clinton and Congressman Sestak now need to answer questions about what the White House has released," Issa added.
"Regardless of what President Clinton or Congressman Sestak now say, it is abundantly clear that this kind of conduct is contrary to President Obama's pledge to change 'business as usual' and that his administration has engaged in the kind of political shenanigans he once campaigned to end."
Issa, as well as seven Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have asked Attorney General Eric Holder to name a special prosecutor to examine the case. Holder has refused.
"This memo, frankly, raises more questions: What was Bill Clinton authorized to offer? Did President Obama sign off on this conversation before it took place? Now more than ever it is clear that this White House is not capable of policing itself and needs to open itself to an independent investigation," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said.
In his statement, White House lawyer Bauer said that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had enlisted Clinton to approach Sestak last summer. Bauer said that Clinton discussed possible appointments to a presidential or senior executive branch advisory board.
That, Bauer said, "would avoid a divisive Senate primary, allow him to retain his seat in the House and provide him with an opportunity for additional service to the public in a high-level advisory capacity for which he was highly qualified."
"Congressman Sestak declined the suggested alternatives, remaining committed to his Senate candidacy," Bauer said. A retired Navy admiral who commanded an aircraft carrier battle group in the Afghanistan war, Sestak is the highest-ranking military officer ever elected to Congress. He defeated Specter in a primary May 18.
Although Bauer said the White House tried last June and July to find out whether Sestak would accept such an appointment, Sestak referred in a statement Friday to a single phone call from Clinton.
Bauer stressed that the use of Clinton as a middleman meant that no one who's currently in the White House had spoken to Sestak. "White House staff did not discuss these options with Congressman Sestak," Bauer wrote.
He didn't address the laws that cover such offers, however. Instead, he said the talks with Sestak were proper, given the Democratic Party's interests.
"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," Bauer said.
"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," Bauer said.
"Such discussions are fully consistent with the relevant law and ethical requirements."
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