It’s Not the Crime, It’s the Cover-Up — Sestak Edition

This whole Joe-Sestak-job-offer thing is getting odd — and the longer it drags on, the worse it gets for the White House.  What should have been a nothing story is threatening to become an actual political scandal. Haven’t we seen this show before?

Back in February, Rep. Sestak alleged that the Obama Administration offered him a political appointment — a “high up job” — to drop out of the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania against Senator Arlen Specter.  This would not be a big deal other than for the existence of a federal law barring the offer of employment for political purposes. 18 U.S.C.§ 600 provides:

Whoever, directly or indirectly, promises any employment, position, compensation, contract, appointment, or other benefit, provided for or made possible in whole or in part by any Act of Congress, or any special consideration in obtaining any such benefit, to any person as consideration, favor, or reward for any political activity or for the support of or opposition to any candidate or any political party in connection with any general or special election to any political office, or in connection with any primary election or political convention or caucus held to select candidates for any political office, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.

See also 18 USC § 211 and 18 USC § 595.  If Sestak was telling the truth, someone in the White House may have violated federal law.

Now that Sestak has won the primary, the press has become more interested in the story, but has yet to get any details from either Sestak or the White House.  Meanwhile, Sestak is sticking to his story, and now it seems folks are scrambling to get their stories straight.

The initial White House response was to deny that Sestak was ever offered a job, yet Sestak stuck to his story.  So someone was lying.  After a week or so of Administration officials saying nothing more than there nothing “inappropriate” occurred, the President has now promised an “official” response.  Oddly, the President insists that “nothing improper” happened, but is unable (or unwilling) to provide the details — details he should have at his command if he is in a position to assure the press that “nothing improper” occurred.

In the meantime, the Washington Post reports Sestak’s brother (and campaign counsel) has recently met with White House folks about the allegations and the planned White House response.  What’s the point of this if not to make sure everyone gets their stories straight so the issue will go away.  This sort of thing only strengthens Senate Republicans’ demand for a special prosecutor.  (Of course, one wonders why Sestak told reporters about his brother’s contacts with the White House.  Doesn’t he know when to shut up?  Or does he have it in for someone in the White House?)

What do I think happened?  I suspect some reasonably important White House official strongly suggested Sestak would be in line for a plum appointment if he cleared the way for Specter’s reelection, unaware that federal law prohibits this sort of thing.  Sestak blabbed, but has been too stubborn to retract the statement, while the White House has sought to cover for whoever made the offer.   Circling the wagons in this fashion is understandable, but it never turns out well — just ask any veteran of any of the past several administrations. Instead of forcing one politico to slink off into the shadows, the Administration has let this issue fester into what come become an unneeded election-year scandal.  Again, if there’s no there there, it should be easy for the White House to explain why.  A delayed “official” response will only fan the flames higher, and keep this story in the news.

ADDENDUM: Here’s my take on what should have happened.  Once the press picked up the story, whoever in the White House had spoken to Sestak should have come forward and said that they had communicated to him the desire not to have a contested primary, that his value to the Party was recognized, and that there would certainly be opportunities for someone like him in the Administration — perhaps even right away as a commenter suggests below (which would have required that he drop out) — and that any implication that a specific job was being offered as a quid pro quo for Sestak leaving the race was unintended.  Had someone done that a few weeks back, this would have been a non-story.  Help-our-guy-and-we’ll-help-you deals are common in politics, and hardly the stuff of which major scandals are made — unless they’yre mishandled, as I believe this was.

UPDATE: And there’s even a Clinton angle.

SECOND UPDATE: Here is the official White House response, a memo from White House counsel Bob Bauer explaining what occurred and why no laws were broken.  Marc Ambinder comments: “If Rep. Sestak differs in his recollection, then the story will continue to be a story. If not, it won’t be.”

FINAL UPDATE: Chris Cilliza on how a non-story became a story.