Romanoff job offer demands response from Obama

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Saturday, June 5, 2010

IS PRESIDENT OBAMA comfortable with the actions of White House officials in dangling federal jobs as political inducements?

An episode involving former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D) is more troubling than the previously disclosed incident involving Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.). The White House wanted to clear the primary field for the endangered incumbent, Sen. Michael Bennet. Not unusual, except that to achieve its aims the White House offered the prospect of a federal job for Mr. Romanoff if he were to eschew the Senate race. In Mr. Sestak's case, the White House at least had the sense to use former president Bill Clinton as an intermediary to inquire whether Mr. Sestak might be prevailed upon to stay out of the race; more important, the feeler to Mr. Sestak involved an unpaid advisory post, not a full-time federal job. The Romanoff episode was even cruder.

Of course political factors are taken into account in deciding how to allocate political posts. The president has wide latitude in staffing his administration. Fundraisers have been rewarded with plum jobs in this administration as in others. But the reported interchange between Mr. Romanoff and Jim Messina, the deputy White House chief of staff, crosses the line from business as usual to unseemly. Mr. Romanoff had applied for an administration job during the transition, to no effect. Suddenly, when his Senate candidacy posed trouble, there appeared Mr. Messina who, according to Mr. Romanoff, called and "suggested three positions that might be available to me were I not pursuing the Senate race. He added that he could not guarantee my appointment to any of these positions."

If this is not a quid pro quo -- a federal job in exchange for dropping the Senate bid -- it is uncomfortably close. Substitute Karl Rove for Jim Messina and imagine the uproar if the Bush administration had engaged in such a baldly political exchange.

Is it a crime? Probably not. Federal law prohibits anyone from promising federal employment as a "reward for any political activity," but the Justice Department's official guidance for prosecutors says this is "not intended to reach the consideration of political factors in the hiring or termination of the small category of senior public employees." Both sides say that no firm job offer was made. But the absence of illegality is hardly the end of the inquiry -- and it is certainly not the standard of behavior that President Obama posed for his administration. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that Mr. Obama did not know about the Romanoff overtures in advance, and Mr. Gibbs blew off questions about his reaction by saying he hadn't discussed the matter with the president. That's not sufficient. The American people deserve to hear directly from the president about whether he is happy with this behavior


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