John Baer: Sestak's tone-deaf when it comes to earmarks

His Web site says one thing about contributions and earmarks, but who Joe Sestak takes money from says quite another.
His Web site says one thing about contributions and earmarks, but who Joe Sestak takes money from says quite another.
Posted: July 28, 2010

JOE SESTAK readily admits he has trouble answering questions succinctly.

He says that much of what he's asked about is so complicated that he needs time to explain things. He also says this is a drawback in his profession and tells me that he works on it "constantly."

The Democratic congressman and Senate candidate should work a little harder to reconcile taking campaign contributions from those benefiting from federal "earmarks" (which direct money to be spent on specific projects) while claiming "a personal policy" against doing so.

The issue isn't complicated.

Sestak's campaign Web site ( says: "If an organization or individual has made a request for an appropriations project, and has made a contribution to [Sestak's] campaign, he returns that contribution."

But the Inky recently reported that Sestak took at least $119,650 from employees of companies in his district with "earmarks" from the congressman.

Sestak's Republican opponent, Pat Toomey, says Sestak violates his own ethics pledge and should return the money. So what's the deal?

In addressing this evident disconnect, Sestak and campaign aides say the "ethics pledge" is really an internal congressional-office policy. It applies only to senior executives. It applies only during "appropriations season," defined by spokesman Jonathon Dworkin as "early April to mid-June."

Here's what Sestak's congressional Web site says: "It is the Congressman's practice to decline campaign contributions from senior company officials during the appropriations period when the companies have requests before him. . . . admittedly imperfect, this practice is one step in the Congressman's broader effort to restore accountability and transparency to government."

("Restore?" Musta been living at sea.)

Monday, at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon in Harrisburg, Sestak said, "I kept my pledge," but he added, "it's hard to be perfect."

Indeed it is.

The campaign Web site clearly states that Joe keeps no dough from earmark recipients. The congressional Web site offers a narrow variant of that - so narrow as to be meaningless. Anybody can give, except in springtime.

So Sestak's "I'm-a-reformer" pitch on this issue is overstated.

Also, defining "appropriations season" as April to mid-June suggests that earmarks aren't offered or considered at any other time. Two Democratic congressional offices I contacted say the "season" runs January to August or September.

Sestak spokesman Dworkin says the congressman's policy is voluntary and therefore commendable. Sestak says he's given "thousands" of dollars back. His campaign notes that he returned $4,600 to philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest in April 2007.

Donors seem aware of the policy. Federal Election Commission records show that multiple donors/earmark recipients make donations on the edge of Sestak's "season."

Among them: Gregory Piasecki, CFO of Dragonfly Pictures Inc. (it's not a movie studio - it designs unmanned helicopters to take photos), $4,800, June 30, 2009; Jean McManus, president of Peak Beam Systems, $4,800, March 27, 2009; William Loftus, CEO of Gestalt LLC, $4,800, June 30, 2009; and Harshad Mehta, CEO of Silicon Power Corp., $1,000, June 25, 2009.

Sestak's camp notes that Democrats in March proposed ending earmarks to for-profit firms. But the issue is fuzzy amid reports that some such firms are setting up nonprofit entities to stay in the earmark game.

Sestak says he opposes "earmarks," though he still secures them. (Toomey pledges not to seek earmarks if elected senator. A campaign aide says Toomey did do earmarks during the first year or year-and-a-half of his six-year congressional stint.)

I understand that any effort to end or reform the system is worthwhile. And Sestak made an effort. But dozens in Congress don't do earmarks, period - House GOP Leader John Boehner and Pennsylvania Republican Joe Pitts among them.

And I understand that reforming anything as unreformed as congressional appropriations policies requires baby steps. But Sestak's baby step should not be offered, portrayed or touted as anything more than it is: a vague, disingenuous attempt to polish his own credentials.

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