White House Misses Deadline on GOP Inquiry About Sestak Scandal, Call for Special Prosecutor Likely

By Fred Lucas | April 6, 2010 | 5:10 PM EDT

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs listens to a reporters question, Monday, March 9, 2009, during his daily press briefing in the White House Pressroom at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

Washington (CNSNews.com) – The White House counsel’s office failed to meet an already extended deadline for answering questions from House Republicans about Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), who had said the White House offered him a high-level administration job in exchange for his not running against Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs also declined to say on Monday whether the administration would support a special prosecutor investigating the matter. Gibbs instead referred back to a Mar. 16 statement in which he said “whatever” White House conversations occurred with Sestak, they were “not problematic.”
Legal experts and members of Congress have said that if the White House made the quid pro quo job offer to Sestak, it could constitute a federal crime. Specter, a former district attorney, said it could constitute bribery.
The lack of response from the White House counsel’s office makes it likely that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, will formally ask Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to review the matter.
CBS News first reported on Mar. 24 that Issa said if he did not receive “satisfactory answers” to his letter by the Apr. 5 deadline, “then the next step would be to call for a special prosecutor to investigate.”
The White House has not responded to Issa’s questions on the matter, Republican committee spokesman Kurt Bardella told CNSNews.com Monday. Bardella said Issa intends to give the White House one more week.
In a Mar. 10 letter to White House Counsel Robert Bauer, Issa specifically asked who on the White House staff communicated with Sestak about the 2010 race for the Senate; to identify what position, if any, was offered in exchange for the commitment to not run; “what if any investigation did your office undertake to determine whether the criminal activity described by Rep. Sestak occurred?”; and, “Do you expect to make a referral to the United States Department of Justice in this matter?"
Issa first stated the deadline was Mar. 18. When that date came and went, Issa sent another letter on Mar. 22, and stretched the deadline to Apr. 5. In late March, Issa said that if he did not get satisfactory answers from the White House, he would ask Holder to appoint a special prosecutor.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D.-Pa.) is challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania's Democratic U.S. Senate primary. (AP Photo/George Widman)

For his part, Issa did not go as far as Specter in saying the allegation, if true, could constitute bribery. Rather, Issa cited U.S. Code 18, Section 595, a misdemeanor that says someone who “uses his official authority for the purpose of interfering with, or affecting, the nomination or the election of any candidate for the office of President, Vice President, Presidential elector, Member of the Senate, Member of the House of Representatives, Delegate of the District of Columbia or Resident Commissioner, shall be fined under the title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”
Reporters asked White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about the matter six times over the course of four weeks. Finally, Gibbs responded on Mar. 16.
“I’ve talked to several people in the White House. I’ve talked to people who have talked to others in the White House,” Gibbs said. “I’m told that whatever conversations have been had, are not problematic. I think Congressman Sestak has discussed that this is – whatever happened is in the past and he is focused on this primary.”
On Monday, Apr. 5, CNSNews.com asked Gibbs if the White House would support a special prosecutor investigating the issue, citing the Apr. 5 deadline.
Gibbs did not directly answer the question but referred back to his Mar. 16 comment. “I think I spoke, I spoke to this several weeks ago,” Gibbs told CNSNews.com.
In his Mar. 22 letter, Issa asked Bauer for more information about who Gibbs spoke with in the White House about the matter.
“Gibbs’ statements – namely that he is collecting direct evidence from witnesses – imply that the White House is allowing its communications staff to carry out investigative tasks ordinarily conducted by legal professionals in the Counsel’s office,” Issa said in a statement. “Such slipshodness has all the makings of a cover-up.”
Issa is not going to immediately make the request for a special prosecutor, his spokesman Bardella said.
“We’re going to give him an extra few days to respond,” Bardella told CNSNews.com. “If they respond and the response is satisfactory, we will be happy to move on.”
But, Bardella said the silence so far speaks volumes.
“If it is not problematic, as Robert Gibbs says, then there should be no hesitation to say who said what to whom and when,” Bardella continued.
The Pennsylvania primary is on May 18.
Sestak first affirmed the allegation in February when Philadelphia TV newscaster Larry Kane asked him if the White House “offered a federal job to get out of this race.”
Sestak answered, “Yes,” but declined to tell Kane what the job was or who made the offer. Sestak has confirmed the offer was made in exchange for quitting the race in numerous interviews afterward. But each time he has declined to give further details.
“Having been asked a question that no one had ever asked me before, I answered it honestly,” Sestak told the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call last week, “The politics of what happens after, I'm not interested in. There are other things we have to focus on.”