Is it illegal for the White House to dangle administration jobs in front of political candidates as a way of persuading them to abandon their campaigns?
That's what appears to have have happened in two contested U.S. Senate contests. Democrats Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania and Andrew Romanoff in Colorado say they were urged to drop out of their primary races and told of federal jobs that would be available to them.
Some Republicans in Congress say such a practice amounts to a form of bribery or corruption and are asking the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate. Rep. Darrell Issa, the senior Republican member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, says the White House coordinated "an arrangement that would represent an illegal quid pro quo, as federal law prohibits directly or indirectly offering any position or appointment, paid or unpaid, in exchange for favors connected with an election."
Many legal experts from both parties say the law, on its face, appears to prohibit what Obama operatives did. But they also say they doubt that what the administration did was illegal.
"I don't like this, and voters in the effected states certainly shouldn't like it," says Prof. Richard Painter of the University of Minnesota law school, a former White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.
"Once a candidate has declared an intention to run for federal office, the White House should back off and let the voters decide. Then the White House can give the loser a job if it is warranted," Painter writes on a blog devoted to legal ethics.
But he adds, "I don't see illegality unless of course someone lies about it. If Congress wants to make this practice illegal, perhaps Congress should enact a law saying that no person who has filed papers to run in a federal election may be contacted by anyone in the executive branch about possible employment until the election is over," Painter says.
Stan Brand, a Washington, DC lawyer and former federal prosecutor says the practice isn't new but notes that the Justice Department has never prosecuted such a case. "Prosecutors go after patronage crimes, selling offices," he says, "but political loyalty and horse trading are part of the landscape."
A Justice Department policy manual for prosecutors says the law was not intended "to reach the consideration of political factors in the hiring or termination of the small category of senior public employees." For them, the manual says, "a degree of political loyalty may be considered a necessary aspect of competent performance."