White House Bribery Scandal

  • #1
russ_watters
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I made reference to this in another thread and I had been meaning to open a thread on it for a while - I get the feeling not many people heard about it because it didn't get much traction in the media. It was a local story, though, so I heard it before it even went national:
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel used former President Bill Clinton as an intermediary last year as part of a failed administration effort to dissuade Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak from running for the U.S. Senate, according to a publicly released memorandum from the White House legal counsel's office.

Top White House lawyer Robert Bauer conceded that "options for Executive Branch service were raised" for Sestak, but insisted that administration officials did not act improperly. He characterized the attempt to influence Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary -- ultimately won by Sestak -- as no different from political maneuvers by past administrations from both political parties.
http://www.cnn.com/2010/POLITICS/05/28/sestak.obama.senate/index.html

An explanation of the back-story for those unfamiliar with the situation: Democrat Joe Sestak challenged and beat party-switching former Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania in his primary election this spring. Specter is a high ranking Senator who has been in government for almost 50 years, having cut his chops during the Kennedy assassination investigation. He was a powerful ally for Obama and Obama did what he could to protect him from a difficult challenge, hoping that the moderate to slightly democratic Pennsylvania would re-elect him in the fall if he could just get past the primary.

Now there are actually three stories here:

First, is this action inethical and/or criminal? Inethical is easy: it is. Criminal is a little tougher. Obviously, the crime, if it fits the criteria, is bribery. Here's an op-ed discussing the issue:
It’s therefore worth looking at the text of the principal federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. Section 201, which makes it a crime to “corruptly ... give, offer, or promise ... anything of value ... to a public official ... with intent to influence” that official in “an official act.”

The first point to make is that Sestak, the congressman, would certainly count as a “public official.”

Second, even an unpaid, advisory job in the White House or Pentagon could constitute “something of value” for purposes of the statute, though the case admittedly does take on a less nefarious complexion than it would have had Sestak been offered the (paid) Navy job.

Third, even on Bauer’s account, it sounds like Clinton’s offer was made “with an intent to influence” Sestak’s behavior. Bauer, after all, conceded that the “Democratic Party leadership had a legitimate interest in averting a divisive primary fight.” It seems reasonable to infer that they wanted Sestak out and were willing to give him something in return.

The interesting question, though, is whether what Sestak was asked to do (or not do) constitutes an “official act.”
http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2010/0528/Sestak-Clinton-and-Obama-Was-it-a-bribe

So the basic criteria for bribery are straightforward and clearly apply. It's the "official act" part that is more difficult and where the author of the op-ed doesn't see a clear enough connection to apply it. In essence, he argues that the quid pro quo must be for clear "official act" such as buying a vote. In this case, the "act" was dropping out of a Senate race and there was nothing else Sestak was to do for Obama.

In my opinion, the spirit of such a law should be focused on the person who commits the crime, not the person being bribed (a separate law should exist for them) and Obama here intended a quid pro quo for personal gain. To me, that is the spirit of bribery. I honestly don't know if the statute was meant to be that way or not, though. However, for the President, the statute means whatever the House of Representatives wants it to mean, so since we have a Democratic house, he won't be impeached. If we had a Republican house, perhaps he would be.

The second story here is what this means for Obama as a force of "change" in Washington. Clearly, it means he is exactly the type of unscrupulous Washington insider/player that he told us he wasn't. Not that I ever believed him anyway, but a lot of people did. Be sure this will come up in October of 2012.

The third story here is that the story isn't over. Sestak is currently not talking about the issue anymore. He's stuck. The issue first broke in February, before the primary, but then as today, Sestak would damage his election chances by attacking Obama. Sestak can use it as evidence he is an ethical person, but I don't know it helps him much: it was a softball offer. The potential damage to his November prospects by losing support from Obama could be huge. But what happens on November 3rd? Obama needs to pull out all the stops for Sestak. Yes, Sestak is a Democrat, which is one good reason to pull for him, but also, what if Sestak loses? If Sestak loses and decides to become a private citizen again, he may just write a book and start talking again. Obama surely would not want that.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
cronxeh
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Yea but.. is a public official's 'official act' to be re-elected? It is his prerogative and a privilege to run for re-election on public funds, but it is by no means his official duty
 
  • #3
russ_watters
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Yea but.. is a public official's 'official act' to be re-elected? It is his prerogative and a privilege to run for re-election on public funds, but it is by no means his official duty
That was the way the author of the op-ed saw it. The way I see it, the benefit for the one doing the bribing should be the focus. With bribery, there are (can be) really two separate crimes: bribing and being bribed and I see no reason why they need to be equivalent to each other.

Let me give a non-government example I see as being similar: I have a large client that has been giving my company crappy little projects because the highest level project manager doesn't like my boss. The low-end project managers (with their crappy little projects) love me. If my boss were to offer the high-level project manager a job/cash/a boat in exchange for his retirement/leaving the company so that one of the low-end project managers could move up into his position, would that be bribery? Retiring(or not) isn't an "official duty", but enticing him to retire would certainly benefit my company.

Anyway, textbook bribery or not, do you at least agree that these scenarios are unethical?
 
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  • #4
CRGreathouse
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Anyway, textbook bribery or not, do you at least agree that these scenarios are unethical?

I think these sorts of things are extremely common, regardless of the propriety or legality.
 
  • #5
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Yea but.. is a public official's 'official act' to be re-elected? It is his prerogative and a privilege to run for re-election on public funds, but it is by no means his official duty

this. the official is not being asked to use the power of his office (official acts), he's being asked not to run for an office. while possibly unethical(and it certainly looks bad), i don't see it as being illegal. and more to the point, i think it is the way both parties run. i believe they both encourage or discourage members to seek this office or not on a regular basis, for what the leadership sees as the overall strategy for political power. and, despite not being the DNC chairman, the presidency is normally seen as the head of either party in power, so naturally, presidents get involved in these things.

if this were a republican president, the press would make much more of it, tho.
 
  • #6
russ_watters
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I think these sorts of things are extremely common, regardless of the propriety or legality.
That's not what I asked, unless you are arguing that being common makes it ok?
 
  • #7
lisab
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That's not what I asked, unless you are arguing that being common makes it ok?

I don't think he is arguing that. But being so common does make it very difficult to stop - the opposition doesn't want to make a fuss about it because they know they'll do it next time they get a chance.
 
  • #8
Ivan Seeking
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That's not what I asked, unless you are arguing that being common makes it ok?

There was nothing wrong with this; at least not from what I've seen. Politics is the art of what's possible; it is dealmaking by definition. That is how politics works. The question is, when is a "deal" illegal, or unethical. Its not like you can take "the deal" out of politics completely. Nothing would ever happen!

When you can find nothing of substance to attack in your opponent, you go for stories like this. You start swingly blindly and hoping to hit something, ie, Hmmmm, even though nothing illegal was done, we need something, so maybe we can spin this in such a way that we get some traction with the gullible masses.

Obviously the Obama admin saw an advantage in having a different candidate. Maybe they don't think Sestak can win in November. Maybe they would prefer to see someone who supports a specific program or agenda - say for example a comprehensive energy policy. Also, I don't think the job even came with a salary.

If the admin had started making threats, even that would okay within certain limits. Exactly when a political threat is out of bounds depends on the specifics of threat. Obviously any threat that is illegal is over the line. If large amounts of cash or personal perks were involved in swinging a vote, that would be unethical and illegal. But asking someone not to run while offering a alternative is hardly a dirty deal. For some reason, they thought the country is best served if Sestak doesn't run. So they tried to find an alternative acceptable to everyone.

Frankly, I'm glad to see the admin using Clinton like this. He is well-suited for the role of internal diplomat. Also, Emanuel is known for being harsh and abrasive, so this was a particularly smart move on Emanuel's part - provided that nothing was done, beyond what I've seen so far, that would raise this to a different level. So far, it sounds like the Obama admin was just doing their job. Also, notably, Sestak doesn't seem to be complaining. It's not like he's started a crusade over this.
 
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  • #9
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Obviously the Obama admin saw an advantage in having a different candidate. Maybe they don't think Sestak can win in November. Maybe they would prefer to see someone who supports a specific program or agenda - say for example a comprehensive energy policy. Also, I don't think the job even came with a salary.

If the admin had started making threats, even that would okay within certain limits. Exactly when a political threat is out of bounds depends on the specifics of threat. Obviously any threat that is illegal is over the line. If large amounts of cash or personal perks were involved in swinging a vote, that would be unethical and illegal. But asking someone not to run while offering a alternative is hardly a dirty deal. For some reason, they thought the country is best served if Sestak doesn't run. So they tried to find an alternative acceptable to everyone.

i think there is a simpler explanation here. a senior senator is much more powerful than a junior senator. what is best served here is the administration.
 
  • #10
Hepth
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Let me give a non-government example I see as being similar: I have a large client that has been giving my company crappy little projects because the highest level project manager doesn't like my boss. The low-end project managers (with their crappy little projects) love me. If my boss were to offer the high-level project manager a job/cash/a boat in exchange for his retirement/leaving the company so that one of the low-end project managers could move up into his position, would that be bribery? Retiring(or not) isn't an "official duty", but enticing him to retire would certainly benefit my company.

Anyway, textbook bribery or not, do you at least agree that these scenarios are unethical?

I don't even view that as unethical... well, a boat maybe because its not really relevant. But whats the difference between this and a severance package offer? Whether its because they don't like you, don't need you, etc. it appears to be a deal that's beneficial for both the company and the person they don't want to work there. Is offering someone more money to do more work also "bribing" them? No, its a pay increase.

I don't think of any of this as unethical or illegal as its VERY similar to a severance offer which is common practice. I don't think the legality is affected by the REASON behind the offer, nor the ethics; but I do see it as blatant political strategy which while I think may be a bit tactless isn't wrong.
 
  • #11
That was the way the author of the op-ed saw it. The way I see it, the benefit for the one doing the bribing should be the focus. With bribery, there are (can be) really two separate crimes: bribing and being bribed and I see no reason why they need to be equivalent to each other.

Its not equivalence. Its about what constitutes bribery. Offering something to someone which may influence them to take action to your benefit is common practice. Its the nature of what the person is being influenced to do that defines bribery.
 
  • #12
russ_watters
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I don't think he is arguing that. But being so common does make it very difficult to stop...
Agreed, but how common is this really?
...the opposition doesn't want to make a fuss about it because they know they'll do it next time they get a chance.
I'm not so sure. This isn't something I've heard happening a lot. The only other one I've ever heard of is the Blagojevich thing, with the difference being while Blag solicited a bribe to give someone a job, Obama offered a bribe to get someone not to go after a job.
 
  • #13
russ_watters
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There was nothing wrong with this...
Really? Blagojevich was just making a deal too - why was he arrested for his? Why do you see them as being different from each other?
The question is, when is a "deal" illegal, or unethical.
Yes, so..... when is it?
Hmmmm, even though nothing illegal was done, we need something, so maybe we can spin this in such a way that we get some traction with the gullible masses.
So you're saying that something must be illegal in order to be inethical?
Also, notably, Sestak doesn't seem to be complaining. It's not like he's started a crusade over this.
As I explained, Sestak is stuck right now. He can't complain: he has an electon to win in November and he needs Obama. But stay tuned: he might lose.
When you can find nothing of substance to attack in your opponent, you go for stories like this. You start swingly blindly and hoping to hit something, ie, Hmmmm, even though nothing illegal was done, we need something, so maybe we can spin this in such a way that we get some traction with the gullible masses.
If this were coming from one of your favorite punching bags like Rush or Beck, it would be easier to dismiss. But Obama is also taking heat from liberal media commentators and Democratic politicians:
Congressional Democrats have been warning President Obama to tone down his anti-Washington rhetoric.

While the president has continued to expound on his campaign themes about the need to change the way Washington works, many of his colleagues on Capitol Hill have been uncomfortable with this posture. Speaker Pelosi and others have asked him to focus his fire on Republicans rather than the system of which they are a part.

The dangers that President Obama, whose 2008 slogan was "change we can believe in," faces from continuing to depict himself as an agent of change became clearer over the past few weeks...

These stories come after other developments have already weakened President Obama's standing as a reformer. The administration has abandoned many of its proposals to reform the political process. Obama has also engaged in the kind of wheeling and dealing to pass health care reform that many Americans who supported him find abhorrent.

President Obama is facing a problem common to most candidates who run on the theme of change. Once they are in power, they have to work within the system they once lambasted if they want to get anything done.
http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/06/07/zelizer.obama.change.politics/index.html?iref=allsearch

To be sure, this criticism doesn't use words like "inethical" or "bribery", but the tone of the story is still negative towards Obama - which is saying an awful lot considering the source.

And Obama certainly took the issue seriously: he didn't defend it himself or even have his press secretary Bill Clinton make the explanation. He had a legal advisor do it. Carefully measured lawyerspeak does not inspire confidence that he really believes there was nothing to this.
 
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  • #14
russ_watters
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But whats the difference between this and a severance package offer?
A severance package is given to you by your company....perhaps you misread my post?
 
  • #15
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It may be useful to stand back a moment and look at the variations of quid pro quo.

A champagne contribution consists of funds in advance of expected return on investment, and a bet that the elected party will both be elected and return value.

Lobbyist funds, in advance of legislation, perform the same function but enrich a candidate already elected. With the lesser risk of a candidate in office, high cost for the same expectations should be presumed.

Bribery is ... well, it's the same as Lobbying.

I was going to bring up quid pro quo #3: payment for services rendered after the fact, but it's superfluous to this thread, and basically the same as bribery. If a lobbyist group fails to pay-up under expectations they cut their own throats for the next deal. This doesn't happen very often, as you can imagine. Word gets around capitol hill very quickly.

Quiz question: 1) What industry in the greater Washington DC area provides the greatest cash inflow?

2) Who arrived first at the first congressional meeting?
 
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  • #16
russ_watters
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It may be useful to stand back a moment and look at the variations of quid pro quo.

A champagne contribution consists of funds in advance of expected return on investment, and a bet that the elected party will both be elected and return value.

Lobbyist funds, in advance of legislation, perform the same function but enrich a candidate already elected. With the lesser risk of a candidate in office, high cost for the same expectations should be presumed.

Bribery is ... well, it's the same as Lobbying.
No. You're misunderstanding the concept of quid pro quo and/or how it applies to lobbying. A quid pro quo (bribery) is an agreement. A gift in exchange for an action. Lobbying, by law, is not allowed to include a quid pro quo. Consider:

Case 1: Lobbyist to politician: "Here's a big bag of money....in a completely unrelated matter, I think you should vote for this bill.

The politician has made no promises and gets the money regardless of whether he votes for the bill or not. The lobbyist has not stated that the money comes with the requirement/agreement of voting for the bill. Hence, no quid pro quo - no bribery. Note: lobbyists do tend to give money to both sides of the isle and therefore expect that when the vote is cast, a lot of money they spent will have ended up going to a candidate that doesn't vote for their cause.

Case 2: Lobbyist to politician: "Here's a big bag of money in exchange for voting for this bill." (and it happens)

This is quid pro quo. Bribery. The money is for the vote. If the politician is unscrupulous, the lobbyist would be well advised to protect his money - perhaps in a half now/half later arrangement. The Sestak case works this way: The benefit for Sestak would have come after his action - Sestak didn't do what was asked, so he doesn't get the promised benefit. That is (would have been) quid pro quo.

So case 1 is legal, case 2 is illegal. Note, that the line can be pretty thin, especially when people talk in riddles, so the law on lobbying does attempt to make protections against crossing the line. Similar ethics rules exist for businesses, too:

A few weeks ago I took a client out for golf on a workday. The very next day, I received a no-bid contract with that client. Bribery? I'll be back later to discuss...
 
  • #17
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I would think that the standard party procedure would have been for the Democratic party to contact the candidate and ask him or her not to run. This must happen all the time. We could assume that this was done and Sestak did not comply. This constituted a raising of the stakes. While political postering to make yourself more marketable in the next election or more powerful at the next vote isn't uncommon, this is obviously slightly more dubious.

I believe that this is not nearly as bad as the Blanko mess, but it was def an attempt at offering a reward for compliance with the party's wishes. I don't see an impeachment trial or charges being filed in the future, but I do see Obama's figure being tarnished. Clinton's too for that matter.
 
  • #18
Astronuc
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Anyway, textbook bribery or not, do you at least agree that these scenarios are unethical?
Yes, it is unethical. The whole point of elections, including primaries, is to allow the public to decide who represents their interests in the government. It shouldn't be up to a few executive party members to decide who becomes candidate or not.

There is a similar situation in NY with Sen. Gillibrand. Apparently Obama (or someone in his administration) put pressure on the state Democratic party to forego a primary for the office. Many folk in NY are not pleased with that interference.
 
  • #19
BobG
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this. the official is not being asked to use the power of his office (official acts), he's being asked not to run for an office.

Definitely not illegal, for the reason Proton Soup gave.

When you're describing the ethics of it, or the ethics of lobbying, I think the shades are a lot greyer.

I think this is a lot closer to things like replacing the previous administration's appointees with your own appointees (such as US Federal Attorneys). You have to look at the details before deciding on the ethics. Replacing or promoting your own preferences is legitimate. Using that sort of influence as punishment and/or a threat to others to influence behavior on specific issues is crossing the line on ethics.

I don't think that was the case in this instance.
 
  • #20
The way I see it the man is looking at running for a certain "job". While he has that job right now he will necessarily cease that position at a predetermined time unless he can get himself "rehired". The Obama admin is offering him another job giving him a choice. I can not see that as bribery especially since the offered position is unpaid.
 

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