Crossed Lines?

E-mails recently forwarded to the Justice Department by a government watchdog group describe alleged efforts by staff of Congressman Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania to call Navy employees for information and negative statements about his Democratic opponent, retired Rear Admiral Joe Sestak. Two e-mails that were forwarded to the Sestak campaign by one current and one former Pentagon employee appear to detail guidance from superiors to staff not to speak with Weldon's office should it call soliciting information about Sestak; Weldon's office is described in one e-mail as “calling everyone and his brother” in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) about Sestak. A third e-mail written by a defense contractor to the Sestak campaign says that he had been told that Weldon's office had allegedly compiled a “hit list” of defense contractors whose officers had donated to the Sestak campaign, of which he was one, and suggested "retribution" against them. The e-mails were provided to The American Prospect by the Sestak campaign.

The Prospect has confirmed the authenticity of two of the three e-mails, speaking directly with their authors. The Sestak campaign is protecting the identity of the sender of the third e-mail, who it says is an active-duty Pentagon employee.

The Prospect has also interviewed a fourth person, Christine Fox, president of the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research and development organization where Sestak briefly worked after retiring from the Navy; Fox confirms the authenticity of the e-mail written by her and forwarded by a third party to the Sestak campaign describing Weldon's office as "calling everyone and his brother” in OPNAV. But Fox downplays the e-mail, saying that her own e-mail encouraging staff at her organization CNA not to talk about Sestak with Weldon's office was preemptive in nature, based on a tip she heard at a Navy staff meeting at the Pentagon.

"The short story is that I attend meetings in the Pentagon regularly," Fox told the Prospect Monday. "At one of them, I heard people were trying to gather information on Admiral Sestak, and I wrote my vice president that we should warn staff that were that to happen, the appropriate thing is to send [such callers] to the Navy's chief of information."

House ethics guidelines and U.S. criminal code prohibit government officials or their staffs or campaigns from using their official positions for partisan political or campaign purposes, such as obtaining information about a political opponent from employees at executive branch agencies. "If this is in fact going on, it is clearly a violation of congressional ethics rules and not just by Weldon, but also by any public official in the executive branch who participated in the scheme," said Craig Holman, campaign finance and lobbying specialist at the government watchdog group Public Citizen. "It also potentially crosses the line into criminal behavior."

Weldon's office did not return calls seeking comment about the allegations in the e-mails, which prompted a complaint to the Justice Department from the government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) last Friday. A call to Weldon's attorney William Winning also was not returned. (Weldon recently retained Winning following press revelations earlier this month that he is under investigation by the FBI and the Justice Department to determine if he used his influence to benefit his daughter's public relations firm.)

If true, these latest allegations concerning inquiries to the Navy would constitute a separate potential violation of House ethics standards and possibly criminal statutes, according to specialists in congressional ethics and elections law interviewed. "The general congressional ethics rule guiding this type of behavior is the most broad rule that says members of Congress shall conduct themselves in a matter that reflects favorably on the House," explains Holman. "It is interpreted specifically to mean that members of Congress cannot contact government agencies for political considerations." Holman also pointed to Chapter 18 of the U.S. Criminal Code, section 610, which concerns coercion of political activity, and section 600-601, which prohibits government officials from giving rewards or seeking retribution against federal employees regarding their political activity.

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"You should know that someone from Rep. Weldon's campaign contacted a staff member here a few weeks ago, apparently seeking a statement that might impugn the admiral's service," reads one previously unreported e-mail, obtained by the Prospect and dated September 8, 2006. It was forwarded to the Sestak campaign by an active-duty member of the Pentagon's Navy staff, according to the Sestak campaign, which did not want to reveal his identity. The e-mail continues, "That staffer rebuffed the attempt, and we were all subsequently reminded by the director of the Navy Staff (a vice admiral) to not involve ourselves in political activities as members of the Navy staff."

"I learned this morning that Congressman Weldon had his staff contacting everyone and his brother in OPNAV to get info on Joe Sestak," the head of a Navy-affiliated think tank, the Center for Naval Analyses, e-mailed her vice president, who subsequently forwarded it to about six staff at CNA on July 21, 2006, according to a second e-mail obtained by the Prospect. "The Navy has legal privacy act concerns and their guidance is for all inquiries to go to the [Office of Legislative Affairs]." The Navy's Office of Legislative Affairs is the legitimate vehicle through members of Congress and their staffs would seek information from the Navy.

According to the retired Pentagon civilian who provided the above email to the Sestak campaign, "I used to work for Sestak when Sestak was a two-star admiral, heading the Navy's N81 Assessment Division/Capability Analysis Group," He described Sestak as a former colleague and a friend. "After I got back [from an … assignment], I got a note from my superior saying Weldon's people are calling all over the Pentagon trying to get dirt on Sestak. We were to refer any inquiries to the Navy's Office of Legislative Affairs."

"I sent the e-mail to Sestak to tip him off about what's going on and the possible violation of the laws," the retired Pentagon civilian told the Prospect.

Captain James Colgary, of the Navy's Office of Legislative Affairs, told the Prospect that he wasn't aware of any inquiries regarding Sestak through his office. "Any congressional inquiry to the Navy must be forwarded to OLA as directed by a Secretary of the Navy instruction," Colgary e-mailed. "I am not aware of any requests for information regarding Joe Sestak." CNA's president Fox has said she remembers actually referring staff to report any calls concerning Sestak not to OLA but to the Navy's chief of information.

Staff at the Navy chief of information's office encouraged reporters to file a Freedom of Information Act request, saying they had received other inquiries from the news media about the e-mails, but do not canvas all calls and e-mails that people in the Pentagon Naval staff receive.

"We can't speak to who may have called which office," said Commander David Warner, of the Navy's Chief of Information office Wednesday. "We don't have the mechanism to canvas" the whole department. Meanwhile, an official who answered the phone at the office of the director of the Navy staff said she was unaware of the issue. A naval press officer also emphasized that staff was advised on the rules. "I don't know about any requests for information about political opponents," says a Navy spokeswoman, Lieutenant Colonel Lisa Brackenbury. "Generally, our staffs are very aware of our restrictions."

A third e-mail, sent to Sestak by a defense contractor, and dated June 29, 2006, reads:

I was in a meeting with a retired Navy flag officer yesterday who let me know that he had seen a "hit list" compiled by someone on Weldon's staff ... that identified people in the national security field who had made contributions to you. Those in the national security and defense fields also had their companies listed. "You're on the list," he told me, and he knew how much I had contributed (so far). He also noted that Weldon had remarked something to the effect, "If they don't think there will be retribution, before or after the election, they're kidding themselves!"

The American Prospect spoke with the author of the third e-mail, a defense contractor who asked that his name not be used to protect his job. He says that he was told about the hit list and that he was on it, but that he has not seen the list himself. He says he has donated to the Sestak campaign, but is not part of the campaign.

The Justice Department's Office of Public Integrity wouldn't discuss the Weldon investigation, or provide guidance on whether the alleged activities described in the e-mails, if true, violated the law. CREW spokeswoman Naomi Seligman Steiner told the Prospect the organization had forwarded two of the e-mails as exhibits to the Justice Department with its complaint Friday.

For his part, the subject of the alleged digging, candidate Sestak, says, "I think it's embarrassing for a congressman to be doing that. Congressman Weldon should be paying attention to the issues."

Laura Rozen is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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