White House admits pushing Sestak to drop Senate bid

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House acknowledged on Friday that it tried to get Representative Joe Sestak to drop his Senate bid in exchange for an unpaid job with the administration, but said an internal review concluded it broke no laws.

Senatorial candidate Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) makes remarks to reporters as he enters the polling place to cast his ballot in the democratic primary at the Edgmont Township Municipal Building in Gradyville, Pennsylvania, May 18, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer

In a report issued under mounting political pressure, the White House said President Barack Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel enlisted former President Bill Clinton as a go-between with Sestak last year to discuss a job on an unidentified presidential advisory board.

The offer, first disclosed by Sestak, has become an embarrassment to both the White House and the congressman, and Friday’s report did little to dampen the controversy. Republicans rejected the White House statement that no laws were broken and demanded an investigation.

The position would have enabled Sestak to stay in the House of Representatives and avoid a divisive Senate Democratic primary race back home in Pennsylvania against a White House-backed candidate, Arlen Specter.

“I said no,” Sestak said in a statement after the White House released its report. “The former president said he knew I’d say that and the conversation moved on to other subjects.”

Speaking with reporters afterward, Sestak said he sensed no wrongdoing and didn’t let Clinton talk about it long enough to hear details of the offer. “It was about either intelligence or defense,” he said of the conversation, which he said lasted less than a minute.

Sestak, who defeated Specter in this month’s primary, said he did not believe the controversy would hurt his Senate campaign, adding that voters in Pennsylvania were focused on the economy.

Sestak said earlier this year the White House offer was conditioned on him dropping his primary challenge to Specter, a veteran lawmaker who had bolted the Republican Party in 2009 and became a Democrat.

His party switch helped give the Democrats a 60-seat majority in the 100-member Senate, enabling them to overcome Republican procedural roadblocks. They lost the 60-seat majority in January when Republican Scott Brown was elected in Massachusetts to fill a seat left vacant by the death of Democrat Edward Kennedy.


Disclosure of the White House offer outraged Republicans who demanded an independent investigation into whether the administration broke laws barring the offer of jobs in exchange for favors.

White House counsel Robert Bauer said in the report issued on Friday: “We have concluded that allegations of improper conduct rest on factual errors and lack a basis in law.”

“Such discussions are fully consistent with the relevant law and ethical requirements,” he said.

Darrell Issa, the senior Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, disagreed.

“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,” Issa said in a statement.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a non-partisan group, said, “There’s no crime. Republicans are making a lot of hay out of nothing.”

Among the possible jobs considered for Sestak was a seat on the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board, the New York Times reported. Sestak did not specify which presidential board Clinton discussed with him.

Sheila Krumholz of The Center for Responsive Politics said, “The fact that this kind of inside political maneuvering may have been going on for years isn’t comforting ... Voters should decide who are the best candidates.”

Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; editing by David Alexander and Eric Beech