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White House: Clinton approached Sestak

- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2010

The White House said Friday that former President Bill Clinton acted as a go-between to discuss with Rep. Joe Sestak an Obama administration job in exchange for abandoning his Senate Democratic primary challenge against incumbent Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

The report came amid heavy pressure from Democrats and Republicans for the White House to provide details about Mr. Sestak's repeated contention that he was offered a job if he would pull out of the race.

President Obama at a press conference the previous day denied the White House had ”improper” dealings with Mr. Sestak and said a complete report would be forthcoming.

In the two-page report, White House lawyer Robert F. Bauer said the job offered was a non-paying, advisory board position in the executive branch and that allegations of improper conduct by the administration “rest on factual error and lack a basis in the law.”

The report also stated the White House had no contact with Mr. Sestak, but that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel “enlisted the support” of Mr. Clinton to speak with Mr. Sestak.

Mr. Sestak said he received only one call, last summer, from Mr. Clinton on the issue. 

“During the course of the conversation, [Mr. Clinton] expressed concern over my prospects if I were to enter the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate and the value of having me stay in the House of Representatives because of my military background,” Mr. Sestak said in a written statement. “He said that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had spoken with him about my being on a presidential board while remaining in the House.”

Mr. Sestak said he almost cut off Mr. Clinton in saying “no” and that his only consideration about the race was “whether it was the right thing to do for Pennsylvania working families” and that Mr. Clinton said he expected such a response. The conversation then “moved on to other subjects.”

Mr. Sestak said during a Capitol Hill press conference that he did not think the offer was illegal.

Mr. Specter, a five-term incumbent, was backed by the White House in his re-election bid, but he was soundly defeated by Mr. Sestak in the May 18 primary.

He will face GOP nominee Pat Toomey in November.

Neither the White House nor Mr. Sestak's response satisfied Republican leaders. 

"I'm very concerned that in the rush to put together this report, the White House has done everything but explain its own actions and has instead worked to craft a story behind closed doors and coordinate with those involved." said California Rep. Darrell Issa, ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who last month asked the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to the case, which the agency has refused. "This kind of conduct is contrary to President Obama's pledge to change 'business as usual.'"

On Wednesday, the seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee made a similar request to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. Still, such a request is unlikely from the full committee, where Democrats are in the majority.  

None of the seven has responded directly for requests for comment since Mr. Obama's midday press conference. House Republicans, including members of the chamber's Judiciary Committee, now have joined Mr. Issa in asking FBI Director Robert Mueller and his agency to investigate the matter.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said the White House response is further proof the administration needs to “open itself” to an independent investigation. 

"In the three months since Joe Sestak first made his allegation, the White House has denied, stonewalled and is now trying to downplay the claims with an unsubstantiated memo,” Mr. Steele said. “This memo frankly raises more questions: What was Bill Clinton authorized to offer? Did President Obama sign off on this conversation before it took place?”

Mr. Sestak, a former Navy admiral, made the assertion about a “high-ranking” job offer at least twice — once to a local cable television interviewer Feb. 18 and again Sunday. He has steadfastly declined to say who approached him and which job was discussed. Mr. Sestak, however, has said he would cooperate in any investigation.

The White House report states rumors about Mr. Sestak being offered the job of secretary of Navy were false because Mr. Obama announced his intent to nominate Ray Mabus roughly a month before Mr. Specter switched party affiliation to Democrat.

Mr. Mabus, an ex-Navy officer and Mississippi governor, was confirmed in May. 

Among the Democrats pressing for more details are Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine; Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat; and Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat who supported Mr. Specter.

Before Friday, White House officials repeatedly maintained nothing inappropriate occurred, while offering few details.

As recently as Monday, senior adviser Mr. Axelrod said conversations with Mr. Sestak were “perfectly appropriate.”

He also said, however, no questions would “be left unanswered,” and that if Mr. Sestak's assertions were true, “they would constitute a serious breach of the law.”

Among the likely other remaining questions are how the president's in-house lawyer can be responsible for reporting legal violations, and what the scope was of the investigation -- including who was interviewed.