The Legality Of Discussing Jobs With Candidates

The White House acknowledged Thursday that one of President Obama's top advisers encouraged Colorado Democrat Andrew Romanoff apply for an international development job instead of challenging the candidate endorsed by the president. Michele Norris talks to Richard Painter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and former chief ethics lawyer for President Bush, about the legality of the Obama administration's actions.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Last fall, the White House dangled possible job opportunities in front of a Democratic politician to entice him not to run against the person the administration was already backing. Sound familiar?

Well, it's not the Sestak-Specter race in Pennsylvania. This time, the administration was involved in Colorado primary politics. They were reaching out to former Colorado state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. The White House had already endorsed incumbent Senator Michael Bennett.

Joining us to talk about it is Richard Painter. He's a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. He's also former associate counsel and chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.

Welcome to the program.

Professor RICHARD PAINTER (Professor of Law, University of Minnesota Law School): Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

NORRIS: First off, is what the administration did unethical and possibly illegal? And is there a difference?

Prof. PAINTER: Well, I don't think it's illegal.

With respect to ethics, I feel strongly that the administration should not intervene in primary elections if this denies the voters the choice the voters ought to have. But that being said, this is not a violation of government ethics regulations, and it's not a violation of federal law for them to do this.

NORRIS: Did it make a difference in this case that Andrew Romanoff had applied for a USAID job, that this is something in which he had expressed some interest?

Prof. PAINTER: No, I don't think it makes a difference at all. The administration and past administrations have done this as well, have interviewed a lot of people for jobs, who are people who are active in the president's political party. Some of these people are members of Congress already. Some are thinking about running for elected office but are also interested in administration positions.

This is something that comes up quite frequently. Sometimes, the people who want jobs apply to the administration. Sometimes, the administration reaches out to them.

If any of these candidates for a job with the administration came in to my office as the ethics lawyer in the Obama administration, if I held that post, I would have to explain to them if you take a job in the executive branch, such as this job, you cannot be a candidate for elected office. It's either/or, and that's a condition imposed by Congress.

So this comes up frequently, and they have to be told, and it's often by the White House ethics officer, the person who has the job that I held in the Bush administration. The ethics officer has to say, look, you're going to have to choose, either running for office or the executive branch position.

And it's somewhat of a surprise to me to see this now characterized as a quid pro quo. It's an either/or condition imposed by Congress.

NORRIS: I'm wondering if we looked at previous administrations, Democratic and Republican, if we would find that this kind thing has happened in the past, that the Obama administration has not just introduced this brand of politics.

Prof. PAINTER: This is nothing new. And what we need to learn from this and we failed to learn from the past is that we need to think seriously about whether there's too much partisan politics in the White House.

The president and the vice president do run for elected office and they have to be involved in partisan politics, but they don't need to have a staff in the White House that is getting involved in the partisan politics of their own political party.

NORRIS: What did the Obama administration have to gain or lose from this Colorado race? I guess I'm trying to get to: Why would they do it?

Prof. PAINTER: Well, I think that the pattern we see developing here is you have an incumbent who the party establishment believes is more likely to win the general election, and they also don't want to see resources burned up with a primary. But I think that perspective is shortsighted.

And I think President Obama's own experience is a clear demonstration that you can have a vigorous primary fight, as he did with Senator Clinton, emerge the victor from the primary fight and go ahead and win the general election. And that the primary fight could indeed strengthen the candidate for the general election.

NORRIS: Mr. Painter, thank you very much for your time.

Prof. PAINTER: Thank you.

NORRIS: We've been speaking with Richard Painter. He was an associate counsel and chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.

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