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Sestak, Clinton, and Obama: Was it a bribe?

Bill Clinton’s offer to Joe Sestak may be unseemly, but it doesn’t appear to break federal law.

By Stuart Green / May 28, 2010

Newark, N.J.

Did the Obama White House make an illegal offer to a member of Congress in order to influence the Democratic Senate primary contest in Pennsylvania? If so, who made the offer – and might it be an impeachable offense?

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Today, the White House sought to put to rest those breathless questions raised by both political opponents and the media. According to a report from White House Counsel Robert Bauer, it was none other than Bill Clinton who offered Rep. Joe Sestak not the position of Secretary of the Navy, as various conservative pundits had alleged, but rather an unpaid, advisory position if he would stay in his job as a congressman and decline to take on Senator Arlen Specter in the primary.

Sestak, of course, declined to drop out and went on to win his party’s nomination earlier this month.

Mr. Bauer insists that nothing improper occurred, and that his report should put the matter to rest.

Is he right?

While there are a number of federal government ethics statutes that could conceivably be applicable here, the most serious potential charge that has been raised is plain old-fashioned bribery. It’s therefore worth looking at the text of the principal federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. Section 201, which makes it a crime to “corruptly ... give, offer, or promise ... anything of value ... to a public official ... with intent to influence” that official in “an official act.”

The first point to make is that Sestak, the congressman, would certainly count as a “public official.”

Second, even an unpaid, advisory job in the White House or Pentagon could constitute “something of value” for purposes of the statute, though the case admittedly does take on a less nefarious complexion than it would have had Sestak been offered the (paid) Navy job.

Third, even on Bauer’s account, it sounds like Clinton’s offer was made “with an intent to influence” Sestak’s behavior. Bauer, after all, conceded that the “Democratic Party leadership had a legitimate interest in averting a divisive primary fight.” It seems reasonable to infer that they wanted Sestak out and were willing to give him something in return.