WASHINGTON -- The news that the White House dangled more job offers to persuade yet another Democrat to abandon plans to challenge a Senate incumbent in a party primary raises disturbing new questions about potentially criminal political influence in the highest levels of the West Wing.
The bombshell came from former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff who is challenging Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in the Aug. 10 primary -- breaking months of stonewalling reports that the White House offered him some choice government jobs last fall if he dropped out of the race.
It is illegal (18 U.S.C. 600) to offer a federal position or appointment to anyone in exchange for any kind of political activity.
In a detailed statement released to the news media, Romanoff said he got a call last September from White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina who said the White House would back Bennet who was appointed to the open seat last year.
"Mr. Messina also suggested three positions that might be available to me were I not pursuing the Senate race. 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."
Nevertheless, in a detailed follow-up e-mail to Romanoff, Messina floated three specific government jobs that could be available to him if he ended his plan to run against Bennet:
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Latin America and Caribbean, for the U.S. Agency for International Development; Director, Office of Democracy and Governance at USAID; and Director, U.S. Trade and Development Agency, which would put him in charge of a $55 million budget and a staff of 78 people.
Romanoff responded later that afternoon in a voicemail message to Messina "informing him that I would not change course. I have not spoken with Mr. Messina, nor have I discussed this matter with anyone else in the White House, since then."
The next day the White House endorsed Bennet and Romanoff entered the primary race in a bid to wrest the nomination away from Bennet who is widely seen as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate.This is the second time within two weeks that it has been revealed that the White House offered government posts in a "buy-off" attempt to persuade Democrats to abandon party primary challenges.
After months of silence and denials, the White House admitted last month that it had offered an unspecified advisory government position to Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak, through former President Bill Clinton, if he would abandon his primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter.
Sestak, who had said the White House offered him a government "job," rejected the offer and went on to beat Specter in the primary. In a report from presidential counsel Robert Bauer, the White House maintained that no paid position had been offered, nor had they made any direct offer to Sestak.
But troubling questions remained about whether the approach to Sestak came with a more substantive paid job offer than the White House acknowledged -- suspicions that the Romanoff job offer only serve to heighten.
Mr. Clinton, after all, is forever identified with the most bald-faced public lie in modern American politics -- "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
And the Obama White House has clearly been caught lying in all this, too. Earlier, it had denied that any job offer was made to Sestak, only to admit that they had a high-powered intermediary do just that. And when the Denver Post first reported in September that a job offer had been made to Romanoff, the newspaper quoted a White House spokesman saying, "Mr. Romanoff was never offered a position within the administration."
This time, White House counsel Bauer cannot make the argument that the political buy-off target was never contacted directly or that only a small-potatoes, unpaid advisory post was actually tendered.
And we are not talking here about some lower-level West Wing rogue operative. Messina would not be offering a bouquet of federal jobs to a U.S. Senate candidate to abandon a primary race without approval from his boss, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who in turn is practicing the kind of Chicago-style, knee-cap politics that President Obama wants him to play.
This is a political scandal that very possibly involves criminal activity, one that very likely goes well beyond these two Senate races, and that calls for the appointment of a high-level independent special prosecutor.
And the responsibility for playing this kind of shady, underhanded, payoff politics goes all the way to the top.