Is it Sestak-gate?

Evidence mounts that there's been a job-offer coverup

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The White House and Rep. Joe Sestak agree: Joe Sestak, Pennsylvania's Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, is a buffoon.

For months, the White House stonewalled inquiries about whether Mr. Sestak had been offered a federal job in exchange for dropping his challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania's Democratic primary. But on May 28, White House Counsel Robert Bauer issued a statement that said:

"The White House Chief of Staff enlisted the support of former President Clinton who agreed to raise with Congressman Sestak options of service on a presidential or other senior executive branch advisory board."

By stressing the offer was made by Mr. Clinton, who is not a member of the administration, and was for a non-paid job, Mr. Bauer's statement seemed contrived to get around 18 USC 600 and 18 USC 595, which make it a felony to offer a government job as a quid pro quo for a political favor.

The number of people who actually believe all of this is roughly akin to the number of people who believe President Clinton was telling the truth when he said: "I did not have sex with that woman."

But in a statement he issued that Friday, Mr. Sestak said it was so.

This makes him out to be a chump.

Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff admitted Wednesday he'd been offered a choice of three jobs -- including director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency -- if he would drop his primary challenge to Sen. Michael Bennet. (Mr. Romanoff said he was offered the jobs by Deputy White House Chief of Staff Jim Messina, and he has the e-mails to prove it.)

But the White House thought Mr. Sestak could be bought off with an unpaid position on an advisory board?

Mr. Sestak won the Pennsylvania primary in part because his reputation for candor (apparently undeserved) contrasted favorably with Mr. Specter's blatant careerism. But if Mr. Sestak wasn't lying in February, he is lying now, or so the evidence suggests.

It was Philadelphia talk show host Larry Kane, in an interview Feb. 18, who brought up the job offer. In an interview with National Review, Mr. Kane said he'd heard rumors that a job had been offered to Mr. Sestak, so he decided to ask him about it.

"Were you offered a federal job to get out of this race?" Mr. Kane asked.

"Yes," Mr. Sestak responded.

Mr. Sestak never again raised the issue. But when asked subsequently whether he'd been offered a job, he'd answer yes, while saying nothing to discourage speculation it was high ranking.

This seems to me to be the unguarded response to an unexpected question by an honest man. Mr. Sestak seemed to realize right away he'd committed a "gaffe" -- which is Washington-speak for inadvertently blurting out the truth -- and refused to say anything more.

Immediately after the interview, Mr. Kane called the White House to ask if it were true. After a delay of many hours, he was told that it was not.

If the facts were as the White House now claims, why not reveal them then? That would have put the controversy to rest before it began, and -- by suggesting Mr. Sestak was a gross exaggerator -- would have given a boost to Mr. Specter, their favored candidate in the Democratic primary.

There is evidence of collusion in the White House response, which President Nixon might have described as a "modified limited hang-out." Mr. Clinton lunched with President Barack Obama the day before the statement was issued. The day before that, the White House had called Mr. Sestak's brother (and campaign manager).

"They got ahold of my brother on his cell phone, and he spoke to the White House about what's going to occur," Mr. Sestak told reporters. (He doesn't seem yet to have this inadvertently-blurting-out-the-truth thing under control.)

By releasing its statement at the start of the Memorial Day weekend, the Obama administration hoped this issue would fade away. Though Mr. Romanoff's confession last week makes this unlikely, many journalists would like to oblige, because Mr. Obama is a Democrat, and because they regard the offense as venial.

But as Mr. Nixon could have told Mr. Obama, it isn't the crime that does you in. It's the cover-up.


Editor's Note / This column was changed to reflect this clarification, which was published on June 8:

Sunday Perspectives. Rep. Joe Sestak told Philadelphia radio host Larry Kane that he was offered a job by the Obama administration if he didn't run for the Senate seat held by Arlen Specter, but when asked if it was a high-ranking job, Mr. Sestak did not say "yes," as reported in a Jack Kelly column Sunday. The original account posted by the radio program on its website did have Mr. Sestak answering "yes" to the question. But a transcript subsequently posted on the site showed that Mr. Sestak refused to comment on whether it was the job of Navy secretary and a short time later responded this way when asked if it was a "big" job: "It was - never - let me not comment on it. We had a closed comm ... " The conversation was interrupted at this point by Mr. Kane's next question.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The (Toledo) Blade ( jkelly@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1476).


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