Bush's top ethics lawyer on GOP's Sestak allegations: “Time to move on”

In a May 28 entry on his Washington Post blog, Greg Sargent reported:

Earlier this week, Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics officer under George W. Bush, argued that it didn't look like there all that was much to the Joe Sestak story. Even if there had been some kind of “job” offer, Painter said, this constituted “nothing new.”

Now that the White House has released its version of events, Painter is even more adamant. He just told me in an interview that it's time for Republicans to “move on.”

They aren't doing this, as it happens. GOP Rep Darrell Issa is out with a statement today arguing that the White House memo clearly shows a law may have been broken.

Painter, however, dismissed the “scandal.”


“Based on the information disclosed from the White House, it's even more apparent that this is a non issue,” Painter said. “No scandal. Time to move on.”

Painter is one of many legal experts who have rejected the notion that the allegation constitutes a scandal or a crime:

CREW executive director: “I don't see the crime.” CNS News reported that Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor, commented of the allegations: “I don't see the crime.” From the March 24 CNS News article:

“People offer members of Congress things all the time,” Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor and now the executive director of the liberal government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told CNSNews.com. “I don't think there is any issue. I don't see the crime.”


If it is true, such a trade would be an indictment of the system, Sloan of CREW said, but not likely illegal.

“A quid pro quo has to offer something of value in exchange for something,” Sloan said. “If you agree not to run for the Senate and we'll make you secretary of the Navy -- that offers no monetary value. It's just the unseemly side of politics.”

Sloan: “There is no bribery case here.” Talking Points Memo's Zachary Roth reported in a May 25 post that “several experts tell TPMmuckraker this is much ado about nothing” and quoted Sloan saying, “There is no bribery case here. ... No statute has ever been used to prosecute anybody for bribery in circumstances like this.” Sloan also said: “It's not at all about whether there was actual criminal wrongdoing. ... It's about how to go after Sestak.”

Zeidenberg: “Horrible precedent” to treat “horsetrading” “in the criminal context.” Roth also quoted Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor with the Justice Department's Public Integrity unit, saying “Talk about criminalizing the political process!... It would be horrible precedent if what really truly is political horsetrading were viewed in the criminal context of: is this a corrupt bribe?”

Kaufman: “Tell me a White House that didn't do this, back to George Washington.” The New York Times reported that Ron Kaufman, who served as President George H.W. Bush's White House political director, “said it would not be surprising for a White House to use political appointments to accomplish a political goal. 'Tell me a White House that didn't do this, back to George Washington,' Mr. Kaufman said.”

Wash. Post: "[E]thics laws do not seem designed for this circumstance." In a May 25 editorial, The Washington Post stated: “Would it be illegal? Mr. Specter said so, but ethics laws do not seem designed for this circumstance. Ordinarily, bribery takes place in the opposite direction: Government officials aren't usually the ones offering something of value. Other statutes prohibit officials from using their power to interfere in an election, or to, directly or indirectly, promise a job as 'reward for any political activity.' But these have been understood to prevent official coercion, not criminalize horse-trading.” The editorial continued:

Still, the White House position that everyone should just trust it and go away is unacceptable from any administration; it is especially hypocritical coming from this one. “I'm not going to get further into what the conversations were,” Mr. Gibbs said Sunday. “People that have looked into them assure me that they weren't inappropriate in any way.” This response would hardly have satisfied those who were upset during the previous administration about the firing of U.S. attorneys. If there was nothing improper, why not all that sunlight Mr. Obama promised?

Historian Russell Riley: “It is completely unexceptional.” On May 27, The Huffington Post's Sam Stein reported, “As the Republican Party works itself into a lather over the Obama administration's offer of a job to Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Penn) in exchange for him not entering the Pennsylvania Senate primary, seasoned political observers, historians, and lawyers are responding with veritable yawns.”

Historian George Edwards: “All this is old news historically.” Stein further reported, “George Edwards, a Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University, says: 'There is no question whatsoever that presidents have often offered people positions to encourage them not to do something or make it awkward for them to do it. Presidents have also offered people back-ups if they ran for an office and lost. All this is old news historically.' ”

Ethics attorney Stan Brand: “Crime” charge is “far-fetched” and has “no legal substance.” A May 27 Mother Jones article discussed Rep. Darrell Issa's (R-CA) allegation that a crime has been committed and quoted Stan Brand, a Washington, D.C., ethics attorney, responding that the claim was “far-fetched.” Mother Jones further reported:

Those laws, Brand explains, were designed to deal with coercion, fraud, and vote-buying, not “the rough and tumble of political horse-trading.” Promising someone a job, he adds, is not the same as exchanging “money or something of value.” Moreover, he notes, there have never been any prosecutions of the sort Issa contemplates in this instance.

“This is a nice political ploy,” Brand says. “But it has no legal substance. The president can promise Sestak the moon for a political reason. That's the system.”

GOP attorney reportedly calls claims “crap.” Mother Jones reported, “Another DC-based Republican attorney--who doesn't want to talk about this on the record -- calls Issa's argument ”crap."