Published June 4, 2010
It's all coming together now.
On Wednesday, we learned, in the words of The Denver Post, that:
U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff acknowledged tonight that he discussed three possible jobs with the deputy chief of staff of the Obama administration — all contingent upon a decision by Romanoff not to challenge U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
Romanoff said none of the jobs was formally offered, but said the only reason they were discussed with Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina was if Romanoff stayed out of the Senate race.
“Mr. Messina also suggested three positions that might be available to me were I not pursuing the Senate race,” Romanoff wrote in a statement. “He added that he could not guarantee my appointment to any of these positions. At no time was I promised a job, nor did I request Mr. Messina's assistance in obtaining one.”
Romanoff released an e-mail from Messina outlining two positions at the United States Agency for International Development and a third as director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency that could be available to him if he weren't running for Senate.
This confirmation by Romanoff comes in the context of a similar White House effort to get Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) to agree not to challenge Sen. Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, which Sestak won.
During the last week the White House released its version of events: Rep. Sestak, a retired three-star admiral, was offered, through former President Bill Clinton, an uncompensated advisory board post in order for Sestak to agree not to challenge Sen. Specter. We are supposed to accept this account despite the fact that Sestak, in a February interview, said he was offered a high-ranking federal job in order to get out of the race.
For months, it should be pointed out, the White House stonewalled on this matter. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Senior Adviser David Axelrod, when asked about the Sestak matter, have looked foolish and as if they had a great deal to hide.
Then, last Friday, White House counsel Bob Bauer, a former lawyer for Rahm Emanuel, released a memorandum that was supposed to exonerate the White House from any wrongdoing. In fact, by suggesting that the only quid pro quo Sestak received was an unpaid post on an unimportant advisory board raised many more questions than it answered. For example, Sestak says he received just one brief call from former President Clinton, yet the Bauer memo states, “Efforts were made in June and July of 2009 to determine whether Congressman Sestak would be interested in service on a Presidential or other Senior Executive Branch Advisory Board.” Which efforts? By whom? Obviously there is more to the Sestak story than what the White House is letting on.
Now comes the Romanoff revelation, adding more data points to a Denver Post story written last September. The story reported this:
Not long after news leaked last month that Andrew Romanoff was determined to make a Democratic primary run against Sen. Michael Bennet, Romanoff received an unexpected communication from one of the most powerful men in Washington.
Jim Messina, President Barack Obama's deputy chief of staff and a storied fixer in the White House political shop, suggested a place for Romanoff might be found in the administration and offered specific suggestions, according to several sources who described the communication to The Denver Post.
Romanoff turned down the overture, which included mention of a job at USAID, the foreign aid agency, sources said.
Then, the day after Romanoff formally announced his Senate bid, Obama endorsed Bennet.
The Denver Post story went on to say this:
The White House said that no job was ever offered to Romanoff and that it would be wrong to suggest administration officials tried to buy him out of the contest.
“Mr. Romanoff was never offered a position within the administration,” said White House spokesman Adam Abrams.
This denial qualifies as Clintonian. No formal offer may have been made — but it was clear that Romanoff, if he dropped out of the race, would be able to choose from several of the jobs that were dangled before him. That seems a distinction without a difference.
We are now entering a new and dangerous phase in the Obama presidency. For one thing, it is possible that federal crimes were committed. Among the statutes that may have been violated is this one, which states:
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.
Then there is 18 USC Sec. 211— a section pertaining to Bribery, Graft and Conflicts of Interest: Acceptance or solicitation to obtain appointive public office — which says this:
Whoever solicits or receives . . . any . . . thing of value, in consideration of the promise of support or use of influence in obtaining for any person any appointive office or place under the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.
Some legal experts, like President George W. Bush's ethics counselor Richard Painter, believe that the statutes don't apply to situations like Sestak because it would be interpreting the statutes in an overly broad and even unprecedented manner. Without knowing the precise set of facts we're dealing with, it's difficult to know. But certainly what Romanoff is describing — receiving a highly paid appointment in return for pulling out of a race — violates the spirit of the statutes and is edging up to the legal line, if not outright crossing it.
Obviously, members of the Obama White House considered their actions troubling enough that they went to great lengths to conceal their actions. They have been engaging in a modified limited hangout. And it is reasonable to assume, I think, that Sestak and Romanoff are not isolated examples.
Senate and House Republicans, who were calling for a special prosecutor to look into the Sestak matter, are in all likelihood going to insist on the same thing for the Romanoff deal.
I hope we don't get to that point. The one person who can keep this matter from spinning out of control is President Obama. He merely needs to live up to his pledge for transparency and integrity in government. More than any other candidate in our lifetime, he ran on the promise of “change,” including changing the culture of Washington politics, the culture of deception, the culture of the cover-up.
Now is the time for the Obama White House to come clean — to tell us the whole truth as it relates to the Sestak and Romanoff affairs and any others that are similar in nature. Barack Obama can use this moment to change the trajectory of his presidency, which started out with so much hope but now looks nothing so much as Chicago-style politics writ large.
The late, great Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in the immediate aftermath of the Iran-contra affair, counseled President Reagan to state the facts. “Let it all come out,” Moynihan said, “in the open, with greater than deliberate speed, immediately, regardless.” To his credit, Reagan more or less followed Moynihan's advice. So should Barack Obama.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.