White House transparency could have ended Sestak 'scandal'

Saturday, May 29, 2010

OKAY, if all the facts are out, then we would agree: Nothing inappropriate happened. On the basis of the memorandum issued Friday by White House Counsel Robert F. Bauer, the Joe Sestak job-for-dropping-out-of-Senate-race scandal is a non-scandal -- except for the White House's bungling of the episode. The unnecessary coverup, it turns out, is always worse than the non-crime.

The talk had been that the White House had attempted to strong-arm -- "bribe," some critics claimed -- the Pennsylvania congressman to abandon his primary challenge of White House-endorsed Sen. Arlen Specter after the incumbent senator's party switch. The rumor was that the job being dangled was Navy secretary -- a rumor Mr. Sestak unhelpfully fueled by confirming some kind of job offer but issuing a "no comment" when asked about the Navy post. This scenario never made much sense. President Obama nominated Ray Mabus to be Navy secretary in March 2009, a month before Mr. Specter's party switch; Mr. Mabus was confirmed in May, before the reported overture to Mr. Sestak. But why let an inconvenient timeline get in the way of a potential scandal?

In fact, according to the Bauer report, the White House not only wanted to keep the field clear for Mr. Specter but also wanted to keep Mr. Sestak in his current congressional seat -- understandably, given that Mr. Sestak had beaten a Republican incumbent in 2006. So White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel dispatched his old boss, former president Bill Clinton, to talk to Mr. Sestak about staying put but adding to his responsibilities. The Bauer report says Mr. Clinton discussed with the congressman "a Presidential or other Senior Executive Branch Advisory Board, which would avoid a divisive Senate primary, allow him to retain his seat in the House, and provide him with an opportunity for additional service to the public in a high-level advisory capacity for which he was highly qualified." The positions would have been unpaid.

Mr. Sestak issued a statement echoing the Bauer report. If that's the whole story, this is not a scandal. Not a crime. Not even into an ethical gray zone. So how did the White House find itself in a situation where this rose to the level of Republican demands for a special prosecutor? Mr. Sestak's less-than-full disclosure didn't help. Neither did Mr. Specter's assertion that the reported conduct, if true, would constitute a "crime." But most of the onus falls on the White House.

Of course, Mr. Clinton's involvement inevitably makes any story juicier, but still: The administration could have disclosed these facts in February, when the matter first came up. Instead, it stonewalled with assurances that nothing inappropriate happened, but offered no facts to support that high-handed assertion. It continued this tactic after Mr. Sestak won the primary this month. A little transparency early on would have gone a long way to making this story die down before it became a conflagration.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company