Lack of sunlight over Mr. Sestak's claims

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"NOTHING inappropriate happened," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says about the job offer that Rep. Joe Sestak, now the Democratic nominee for a Pennsylvania Senate seat, claims the White House dangled to induce him to back away from challenging incumbent Arlen Specter. "It has been looked into," adds White House senior adviser David Axelrod, and "nothing inappropriate happened."

That may be -- but high-handed, conclusory assurances from the White House are not enough to satisfy legitimate questions about the episode. Mr. Sestak has said for months -- and he repeated this weekend -- that the White House offered him a job if he would stay out of the primary race against Mr. Specter. Asked whether it was the position of Navy secretary, Mr. Sestak, a retired admiral, declined to comment -- though the timeline (a new Navy secretary had just been confirmed) makes that unlikely.

Government jobs aren't mere baubles the administration may dangle in front of those it would like to distract from other pursuits; there is a difference between, say, offering to help raise money to pay off a candidate's debts and promising a taxpayer-funded benefit. At the same time, of course, political considerations play a role in political appointments. This would hardly be the first administration to use appointments to try to clear the field for a favored candidate.

It would be awfully ham-handed if, as Mr. Sestak claims, an administration official presented the situation as an explicit quid pro quo: Don't challenge Mr. Specter and the Navy (or another job) is yours. 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.

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?

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