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White House had Bill Clinton approach congressman about post

An internal inquiry contends that nothing illegal took place in the effort to get Rep. Joe Sestak to quit a Senate race.

May 29, 2010|By Peter Nicholas, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — — The Obama White House enlisted former President Clinton to push a Democratic candidate out of a primary campaign by offering an appointment to a prestigious federal board as an inducement, according to an internal White House investigation whose findings were released Friday.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a top aide to Clinton in the 1990s, used the former president as a go-between in the unsuccessful attempt to clear the field for Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), the report showed.

Clinton phoned Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) with the suggestion that he quit the Senate race, remain in the House and accept an unpaid position on a presidential or executive branch board, according to interviews and a report written by White House counsel Robert F. Bauer.

Sestak, speaking to reporters Friday outside the Capitol, recounted a bit of the conversation with Clinton last summer: "He said, 'Joe, if you stay in the House, Rahm had brought up being appointed to a presidential …'''

Sestak said he quickly jumped in to tell Clinton no, he would stay in the race.

That's what he did, going on to defeat Specter in Pennsylvania's primary election May 18.

The White House released its 1 1/2-page report on a Friday before a long holiday weekend, a strategy often employed to dampen media coverage of an embarrassing episode. Despite its exculpatory tone, the report isn't one the White House will showcase.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama pledged to change the culture in Washington. Yet in this instance, his top aide pushed to turn the Pennsylvania primary into an easy coronation for Specter, whose party switch a year ago gave the White House a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

No illegality took place, Bauer said. The conversations tracked a long history of Democratic and Republican administrations alike, offering "alternative paths to service" for candidates weighing bids for public office, he wrote.

"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 wrote.

But Republicans were not appeased.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and other House Republicans sent a letter to the FBI on Friday asking for an investigation into whether the overtures to Sestak amounted to a bribe.

Issa, in an interview, dismissed Bauer's conclusions as "a defense attorney's legal spin. Nothing more and nothing less."

Earlier this week, seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. asking him to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether a crime took place.

The attorney general's office would not confirm whether an investigation is underway. But in a letter to Issa last week, Holder wrote that no special prosecutor would be necessary.

Bauer's report doesn't specify the positions that were dangled before Sestak. An administration official said one was a spot on the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, which offers advice on the working of the U.S. intelligence community. The board has unfettered access to the president, according to the White House website.

For months, the White House said as little as possible about the Sestak matter. The issue became public in February, when Sestak told a TV reporter the White House had offered him a job to discourage him from challenging Specter.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, asked repeatedly about the claim, gave no information about what happened. Republicans leapt on the issue, and even some prominent Democrats said it was time to lay out what took place.

Obama, questioned about Sestak at his news conference Thursday, insisted "nothing improper took place."

Some ethics experts agreed.

Stanley Brand, former general counsel to the U.S. House, said in an interview: "It's horse trading. It's what happens in politics. Presidents appoint people sometimes to get them out of the way, sometimes in reward for good service."

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