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A failing grade for the Sestak report

By William A. Burck and David B. Rivkin Jr.
Friday, June 4, 2010; A17

Without knowing all of the facts and particularly whether firm promises of government jobs were made, it cannot be ascertained at the moment whether dealings among Obama White House officials, former president Bill Clinton, Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak and former Colorado House speaker Andrew Romanoff broke the law. What is clear, however, is that White House Counsel Robert Bauer has engaged in an unprecedented "investigation" of the Sestak affair, culminating in the issuance of his May 28 report.

This effort was, at best, misguided. At worst, it impeded any legitimate Justice Department investigation, harmed the cause of justice and reinforced public disgust with Washington.

The White House counsel is the president's principal legal adviser, but the role is not independent of the president or the White House. Unlike the attorney general, who is the nation's top law enforcement officer, the White House counsel is not confirmed by the Senate and does not supervise career lawyers charged with impartially investigating and prosecuting possible crimes on behalf of the people of the United States. Executive privilege, which restricts public disclosure of certain communications between the president and his staff, is at its strongest for advice given to the president by his counsel.

To be sure, the counsel sometimes has to handle allegations of wrongdoing by White House staff members. But when the allegations concern purportedly criminal misconduct -- as was alleged in recent years in the Valerie Plame affair, the dismissal of U.S. attorneys and the destruction of CIA "interrogation tapes" -- the procedures that the counsel must follow are quite strict and the scope of any investigation is narrow. The counsel would be limited to conducting a preliminary inquiry to establish whether there is some factual basis for the allegations. The lawyers would follow standard procedure for preserving the integrity of the investigation, including instructing staff members to preserve all relevant documents, not to discuss the matter with each other and to take all other necessary steps to preserve evidence. If there is some basis to believe a crime was committed, even if the evidence may not be definitive or even particularly convincing, the Justice Department would step in for further investigation.

Given that the U.S. Code explicitly proscribes "promises [of] any employment, position, [or] appointment . . . to any person as consideration, favor or reward for," among other things, staying out of any political primary, this standard has been amply met. Indeed, Bauer's own conclusions establish that there is a factual basis to believe Sestak may have been offered a position as an illegal quid pro quo. Nonetheless, Bauer clearly does not believe that anyone violated the law. And he may well be right. Perhaps the position was offered unconditionally. Perhaps Sestak misunderstood. Perhaps even if it was a quid pro quo, the offer does not satisfy the law's requirements for criminal liability. But in the face of doubt on these questions, it is not the counsel's role to make such determinations, particularly when he is opining on the conduct of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, to whom he reports, and a negative conclusion could damage the president for whom he works.

This conflict of interest makes Bauer's numerous lapses in normal investigatory procedure all the more troubling. His report is silent concerning similar job-related discussions last year between Deputy White House Chief of Staff Jim Messina and Romanoff, who is mounting a primary challenge against Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado. Any credible investigation would have inevitably focused on whether the alleged job-for-withdrawal scenario was exclusive to Sestak or part of a broader pattern of conduct.

Meanwhile, according to various news accounts, witnesses were permitted to consult with each other directly or through intermediaries. This is a major process error that would horrify any experienced Justice Department prosecutor, because it allows witnesses to influence each other's recollections or even "get their stories straight." Once this happens, it is very difficult to discern what actually happened. Even releasing Bauer's report taints the investigation by telling witnesses the "official" narrative. E-mails or other documents, which cannot easily be altered to fit the story, may now be the only reliable way to uncover what everyone said and intended.

The claims that past administrations have done this, too, or that further inquiries would only distract us from tackling the nation's pressing problems are risible. The whole matter is about, at the front end, senior White House officials engaging in unsavory political horse trading and leveraging in the process, explicitly or implicitly, the awesome power of the federal government to reward or punish. Separating governance from politics is a key imperative in our body politic and a principle emphasized in ethics briefings given to all government employees, from the lowly GS-4 to the president's chief of staff.

Even more important, at the back end, l'affaire Sestak is about senior White House officials, who should be held to the highest ethical standard, acting irresponsibly. This is no minor matter, since nothing reveals more about the soul of any administration than how it deals with suspected legal lapses by its own. At a time when the public's respect for all branches of the federal government is miserably low, Bauer's report cannot be the end of the matter. The only credible way forward -- not the Chicago way -- is to have the Justice Department investigate both the original Sestak-related White House discussions and the exchanges with Romanoff and any other similar dealings -- as well as the way in which the White House has handled the matter since the story broke.

William A. Burck served in the Justice Department and was a deputy White House counsel under President George W. Bush. David B. Rivkin Jr. served in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel's Office under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

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