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Did Norton fundraising call violate rules?

For the past 48 hours, the political blogosphere has been devoting a lot of attention to D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), specifically about whether she bent or broke any rules in soliciting funds from an unknown lobbyist.

On Wednesday afternoon, BigGovernment -- a Web site run by controversial conservative muckraker Andrew Breitbart -- posted an audio copy and transcript of a phone call Norton made to an unknown lobbyist, asking for a campaign contribution. In the call, the authenticity of which has not been challenged, Norton noted that she is the chairwoman of a key subcommittee -- the Transportation and Infrastructure panel that handles economic development, public buildings and emergency management -- and said she was "surprised to see" that the lobbyist had never given her a contribution since "my major work ... on the committee and sub-committee, it's been essentially in your sector."

BigGovernment reported that the source who provided the recording redacted the name of the lobbyist, but in the call, Norton observes that the lobbyist had given to other members of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The BigGovernment post suggested that Norton might have violated several laws and/or House ethics guidelines. Other news organizations have followed up on the original story, garnering quotes from government watchdog groups accusing Norton of varying levels of potential misdeeds. Norton's office had not responded to a request for comment as of this posting, but she has strongly denied any wrongdoing, telling Politico and other outlets that "[h]er request fully complied with legal and ethical requirements."

Did Norton's call actually break any rules? Legal experts had different takes on the question.

The main point against Norton appears to be that she calls herself "senior member of the, um, committee and a sub-committee chair," and specifically says her work is focused on the lobbyist's "sector." Page 150 of the House ethics manual makes clear that "no solicitation of a campaign or political contribution may be linked to any action taken or to be taken by a Member or employee in his or her official capacity." But the manual (on page 181) also says written fundraising solicitations may mention "[a] Member's title as a chair or ranking member of a full committee, or as a member of the House leadership, as those are considered personal titles as well."

Norton only mentions one specific project in her call -- the construction of a new Homeland Security Department headquarters on the former site of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington, funded by federal stimulus dollars. But because the identity of the lobbyist in question is unknown, it's not clear whether the lobbyist actually has some connection to that project, or if Norton is just mentioning it as an example of the type of project she works on.

"It's tough to tell whether this causes an actual legal issue unless we know who the lobbyist is and who the lobbyists' clients are," said Jason Torchinsky, a Republican ethics lawyer with the firm Hotzman Vogel. "Whether there's an appearance issue or an actual legal issue will turn on what the tie between her committee and the lobbyist is."

Asking lobbyists for money is a standard part of the job for most members of Congress. Both parties' leaders expect their chairmen and ranking members to contribute a certain amount of money to their national campaign committees, which is one reason Norton would mention that top committee members have "obligations" to raise funds.

Kenneth A. Gross, a lawyer with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom who has had clients in both parties, said it seemed clear to him that the call didn't violate any rules.

"It is permissible to talk about committee assignments and chairmanships," Gross said. "There was nothing in the message that linked the solicitation to a particular project. She was outlining some of the big projects she was working on. I see nothing actionable in that message."

By Ben Pershing  | September 17, 2010; 6:05 PM ET
Categories:  Ben Pershing, Campaign Finance, Eleanor Holmes Norton  
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The Compost Journolists bury this huge story in the Metro section eh? I'll be darned..

Posted by: wewintheylose | September 17, 2010 7:54 PM | Report abuse

Is there any member of the CBC who hasn't acted unethically?

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | September 17, 2010 11:01 PM | Report abuse

She needs the money to replace her copy of Seals and Crofts Greatest Hits - 1987, because she wore the CD out playing "We May Never Pass This Way (Again)" regarding her vote as a member of the House of Representatives.

Either that, or she is getting ready to buy her Glock 26 when the gun laws in DC get in line with Heller...

Posted by: GHF_LRLTD | September 18, 2010 1:31 AM | Report abuse

This deserves more prominent coverage in the paper. Whether or not the conduct was illegal, it appears unethical. In any event her constituents ought to know more about this before the general election.

I am certain if the paper were dealing with a republican you'd also have reminded the readers of her earlier failure to file tax returns or pay the taxes she owed.

She has a history of shady behavior and a home town paper that covers for her.

Posted by: clarice2 | September 18, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

This deserves more prominent coverage in the paper. Whether or not the conduct was illegal, it appears unethical. In any event her constituents ought to know more about this before the general election.

I am certain if the paper were dealing with a republican you'd also have reminded the readers of her earlier failure to file tax returns or pay the taxes she owed.

She has a history of shady behavior and a home town paper that covers for her.

Posted by: clarice2 | September 18, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

She alone needs to clarify the nature of the call and why there was a need on her or her staff's part to even make it. Can't imagine her need for campaign funds as she is essentially unopposed to her position in the house aside from having no voting privileges. She has been good for the city and her constituents over the years but even she needs to be held accountable by the Post.

Posted by: davidmswyahoocom | September 18, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I really think it's shocking that the Post hasn't given this story ANY play. Putting is on a Saturday blog is preposterous. Not a word in the paper itself .

Posted by: clarice2 | September 18, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Typical coverage for a favored Democrat....bury it in the back. Had it been a Republican where do you think the story would land? Perfect reason why newspapers are struggling financially. Just like NPR (propped up by Soros) and most tv news outlet other than Fox News....agenda driven media doesn't sell anymore. People are not stupid....they're just tired of being herded like sheep. Journalism died in 2008 when they became the guard dogs of Obama instead of the watch dogs for the people. Shame on them.

Posted by: jflemingphillips | September 18, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

It's a shakedown, pure and simple. Why is the WaPo burying this story? Hate to say it, but if this had been anyone other than a Democrat, it would have been on the front page.

Posted by: cooper100 | September 18, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Acually from my earlier post I could have said jouralism died years ago when the tv and print media became the guard dogs of the Democrats. It just became even moreso with Obama. Its even apparent in this article at the beginning with " a Web site run by controversial conservative muckraker Andrew Breitbart."

Come on guys! Put your pom poms down and report the news with objectivity. Save the commentary for the opinion page. Why does Fox News beat CNN in the ratings every week? Because they are fair and balanced. Newspapers should not blame their dropping cirrulations purely on the internet. They should take a hard look at themselves in the mirror and ask "is our biased reporting fair and is it hurting our business?"

Posted by: jflemingphillips | September 18, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

So, in the opinion of the Republican partisans posting on here, "fair and balanced" means taking an incident that does not appear to be illegal, but is perhaps an example of the distasteful pratices that all members of Congress engage in, and making it the lead story so that a woman (a real person, like you and me) who has served the District with integrity for decades can have her reputation ruined by a marginal incident? It's not like she invited energy lobbyists in to write legislation for her.

Posted by: DC-UM-UDM | September 18, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

An interesting question might be, who leaked the call and what was the motivation.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is notorious for its earmarks and set asides. It is in the targets of many lobbyists and has long been on a 2 way street between members and special interests. The story here is who broke ranks to embarrass the Congresswoman.

Further, inside the committee discipline is enforced by the carving up of earmarks to members (maybe 10 percent of transportation funding's resources) allocating earmarks through its chairman.
I suspect that it will not serve this particular lobbyist, and those he works with, to come out and acknowledge what they put forward with anonymity to this point.

Posted by: jrc-mclean | September 18, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

UM-UDM, You're assuming that she has integrity. The only thing I've heard about her is that she shakes lobbyists down. And you want to excuse her by using the excuse of "everybody does it"? Thats why this country is in the pickle that its in......because the people in D.C. act like little kids by saying "why they do it to". Sad state of affairs when you look for excuses for people when they're on "your side".

Posted by: jflemingphillips | September 18, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Pershing's "nothing to see here, move along" attitude is just pathetic. I just we know which way he votes.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | September 19, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Blackmail/shake down. No doubt about it. If I got that call, I would call the police!

Posted by: BSno_not_what_you_think | September 23, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

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