For the past 48 hours, the political blogosphere has been devoting a lot of attention to D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), specifically about whether she bent or broke any rules in soliciting funds from an unknown lobbyist.
On Wednesday afternoon, BigGovernment -- a Web site run by controversial conservative muckraker Andrew Breitbart -- posted an audio copy and transcript of a phone call Norton made to an unknown lobbyist, asking for a campaign contribution. In the call, the authenticity of which has not been challenged, Norton noted that she is the chairwoman of a key subcommittee -- the Transportation and Infrastructure panel that handles economic development, public buildings and emergency management -- and said she was "surprised to see" that the lobbyist had never given her a contribution since "my major work ... on the committee and sub-committee, it's been essentially in your sector."
BigGovernment reported that the source who provided the recording redacted the name of the lobbyist, but in the call, Norton observes that the lobbyist had given to other members of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The BigGovernment post suggested that Norton might have violated several laws and/or House ethics guidelines. Other news organizations have followed up on the original story, garnering quotes from government watchdog groups accusing Norton of varying levels of potential misdeeds. Norton's office had not responded to a request for comment as of this posting, but she has strongly denied any wrongdoing, telling Politico and other outlets that "[h]er request fully complied with legal and ethical requirements."
Did Norton's call actually break any rules? Legal experts had different takes on the question.
The main point against Norton appears to be that she calls herself "senior member of the, um, committee and a sub-committee chair," and specifically says her work is focused on the lobbyist's "sector." Page 150 of the House ethics manual makes clear that "no solicitation of a campaign or political contribution may be linked to any action taken or to be taken by a Member or employee in his or her official capacity." But the manual (on page 181) also says written fundraising solicitations may mention "[a] Member's title as a chair or ranking member of a full committee, or as a member of the House leadership, as those are considered personal titles as well."
Norton only mentions one specific project in her call -- the construction of a new Homeland Security Department headquarters on the former site of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington, funded by federal stimulus dollars. But because the identity of the lobbyist in question is unknown, it's not clear whether the lobbyist actually has some connection to that project, or if Norton is just mentioning it as an example of the type of project she works on.
"It's tough to tell whether this causes an actual legal issue unless we know who the lobbyist is and who the lobbyists' clients are," said Jason Torchinsky, a Republican ethics lawyer with the firm Hotzman Vogel. "Whether there's an appearance issue or an actual legal issue will turn on what the tie between her committee and the lobbyist is."
Asking lobbyists for money is a standard part of the job for most members of Congress. Both parties' leaders expect their chairmen and ranking members to contribute a certain amount of money to their national campaign committees, which is one reason Norton would mention that top committee members have "obligations" to raise funds.
Kenneth A. Gross, a lawyer with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom who has had clients in both parties, said it seemed clear to him that the call didn't violate any rules.
"It is permissible to talk about committee assignments and chairmanships," Gross said. "There was nothing in the message that linked the solicitation to a particular project. She was outlining some of the big projects she was working on. I see nothing actionable in that message."