Published March 19, 2010
Rare is the Washington scandal where both the accuser and the accused refuse to talk about the charges.
But silence has been the norm in the case of Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., who alleges the Obama administration offered the second-term congressman a "high-ranking" job if he would abandon his primary challenge against Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa.
In the aftermath of the allegation, Sestak remains a challenger to Specter, the five-term Republican who defected to the Democrats last year, in the Keystone State's May 18 primary.
And while the White House repeatedly dodges questions about the supposed job offer, Sestak is keeping mum.
"There's nothing to be gained by focusing on this politics stuff," Sestak told Fox News recently.
The story behind the potentially explosive charge remains vague.
The allegation first surfaced in an interview Sestak gave last month to Philadelphia television anchor Larry Kane. A veteran journalist, Kane was previously best known for his coverage of The Beatles' 1964 American tour, and for a memorable appearance John Lennon made, delivering a zany weather report, on Kane's local Philadelphia TV broadcast in 1975.
"Were you ever offered a federal job to get out of this race?" Kane asked Sestak on an episode of Comcast Network's "Larry Kane: Voice of Reason."
"Yes," Sestak replied.
"Was it the Navy secretary?" Kane followed up.
"No comment," said Sestak, adding. "I would never get out for a deal. I'm in this for the Democratic principles."
"OK," Kane cut in. "But was there a job offered you by the White House?"
"Yes," Sestak replied.
Asked if it was a "big" job, Sestak declined further comment.
By Feb. 23, the allegation arose at the White House daily press briefing.
"I have seen some stuff that (Sestak) said, but I have not looked into this," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Four more times over the next three weeks, Gibbs deflected reporters' questions about the Sestak allegation.
"I have not made any progress on that," Gibbs said on March 1. "I was remiss on this and I apologize. ... Let me check into that."
Shortly thereafter, Rep. Darryl Issa, R-Calif., ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote to White House Counsel Robert Bauer to request an explanation from the Obama administration.
But Gibbs was still not forthcoming. "I don't have anything additional on that," he said at the March 11 press briefing. "Are you ever going to have anything additional on that?" he was asked.
"I don't have it today," he said.
The next day, it was more of the same from Gibbs: "I don't have any more information on that."
Finally, on March 16 -- three weeks after he was first queried on the issue -- Gibbs produced his first substantive response. The press secretary's comments appeared to confirm that someone in the administration had indeed been in touch with Sestak, but Gibbs also suggested -- with equal opaqueness -- that the discussion had not been improper in any way.
"I've talked to several people in the White House," Gibbs said on March 16. "I've talked to people that have talked to others in the White House. I'm told that whatever conversations have been had are not problematic."
He added: "Whatever happened is in the past..."
Sestak, meantime, also proved unwilling to elaborate on what he had originally told Kane.
In an interview on March 10 with Fox News' Bret Baier, Sestak said the offer was made "last summer, before I got in the race," and that he had rejected it.
"I would never get out for a deal," Sestak told Baier. "If I were to get out, as I told this person, I would get out because it was the right thing to do. And the person responded, 'Yes I knew you'd say that.'"
But beyond that Sestak would not budge: "To go beyond that, Bret, doesn't serve any purpose. ... Everything else is nonsense and doesn't help the working families."
By contrast, the White House was swift and explicit in denying a similar allegation made last fall. In September, The Denver Post reported the claim by Andrew Romanoff, the former speaker of the Colorado statehouse, that White house Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina had offered Romanoff a job in exchange for Romanoff's abandonment of his primary challenge against Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. Romanoff said he turned the offer down; White House spokesman Adam Abrams was quoted in the article as saying, "Mr. Romanoff was never offered a position within the administration."
Some analysts argue such offers, if they were indeed made, would constitute violations of federal law, specifically, Title 18 of the U.S. Criminal Code, Section 211, which covers "bribery, graft, and conflicts of interest."
The statute imposes a fine and/or possible imprisonment on anyone who "solicits or receives ... any money or thing of value in consideration of the promise of support or use of influence in obtaining for any person any appointive office or place under the United States."
Still, the job offer stories -- either individually or in tandem with one another -- have generated little interest among major news media.
Mark Feldstein, a former TV correspondent who is now a professor of journalism at George Washington University, told Fox News this disinterest owes to two factors: the White House's treatment of the stories, and the perception that such dealings are common in the nation's capital.
"The White House is certainly being cagey," said Feldstein, "and they're handling it the same way that they handled it with their (former) social secretary (Desiree Rogers), when those folks snuck into the White House under her watch: They're trying to clamp down the lid, keep it mum and hope it goes away. And so far, largely, it has."
The public, Feldstein suggested, is unlikely to get too worked up about the Sestak allegation.
"This kind of 'I'll give you a job if you do X or Y,' or 'I'll give you a favor if you do X or Y' is the way Washington works, on both parties," he said. "Much as in the health care debate, when senators were bought off with exceptions in their states: Nebraska, Louisiana, and so forth. So, like sausage-making, it's not a very pretty sight."