As one of this year’s fiercest congressional races approaches the finish line, internal emails indicate that staffers for seven-term incumbent Mike Honda (D-San Jose) violated House rules prohibiting mixing campaign activity with official business. They also suggest a pay-to-play ethic—conferring benefits to contributors and prospective donors—has taken hold in the office of a congressman who has cast himself as a leading champion of the poor.
Late last month, a former Honda staffer approached San Jose Inside with emails that give an inside look into the campaign and display a disregard for laws that forbid commingling an elected representative’s work representing the public with electioneering. They provide a glimpse at how easy it is for incumbents to improve their chances of getting re-elected by selling access to policymakers to people with money.
These emails were sent almost two months before former commerce department official Ro Khanna challenged Honda last spring, raising questions about how Honda’s campaign has conducted itself behind closed doors.
Jennifer Van der Heide has served as Honda’s chief of staff for almost 14 years. A Minneapolis native who received her law degree from the University of California’s Hastings College of Law, Van der Heide began her law career representing the Hoopa Valley Tribe in northeastern Humboldt County, handling matters such as the tribe’s litigation against a deadbeat timber poacher. In 2000, she joined Honda’s first congressional campaign and served as his legislative director for a year before ascending to the top position in his Washington D.C. office.
Honda’s reputation as a likeable—if not hard-partying—progressive often leaves Van der Heide to “run the show,” a source said.
In a Feb. 9, 2013 email provided to SJI, Van der Heide used her personal Gmail address to coordinate an invitation to an official State Department Roundtable with then-Honda campaign manager Lamar Heystek. In an email dated a day earlier, Heystek wrote in a message with the subject line, “Suggested South Asian Invitees for State Dept. Roundtable,” that he had compiled “a list of South Asian tech/investment folks who've donated to candidates in the past” but not to “MH.” (MH is in reference to Honda’s initials.)
Van der Heide responded: “Great lists—how are we doing outreach to them for $? Can we at least collect emails and send newsletters or something if we can't do straight asks electronically now? Also do you have the list of the South Asians now endorsing/supporting MH? I want to make sure we are including all of them. Invites going out first thing Monday morning.”
Despite Van der Heide’s use of her personal email address and time stamp on a Saturday, which would most likely be considered a day off from work, the email’s content and the subject—an official State Department event—appear to violate several House rules regarding campaigns.
According to the House Ethics Manual, “[A] solicitation for campaign or political contributions may not be linked with an official action taken or to be taken by a House Member or employee, and a Member may not accept any contribution that is linked with an action that the Member has taken or is being asked to take.”
A House source, who was not authorized to speak on the record and asked not to be named, told SJI, “Events can be campaign or official, but they can’t be both. It doesn’t look good.”
Ken Scudder, the congressman’s communications director, told SJI in an email that Honda co-hosted the official roundtable with Mitul Desai, a senior advisor for strategic partnership at the State Department’s South & Central Asian Bureau, on Feb. 21, 2013, at Santa Clara University. Among the 20 attendees were several locally elected officials and a variety of high-ranking CEOs and government relations execs—many of whom might have had a difficult time meeting Desai were it not for Honda’s invite.
“I took that as saying we know we’re not supposed to be doing this, but right now were just getting started,” said the source who supplied the emails.
Van der Heide’s note to make sure that Honda supporters are put on the invite list also could violate an admonition on page 309 of the House Ethics Manual: “House Members, too, should be aware of the appearance of impropriety that could arise from championing the causes of contributors and take care not to show favoritism to them over other constituents.”
The staffer who approached SJI with this and other internal emails said that Heystek and Van der Heide began assigning the staffer with off-hours campaign work, without even receiving a request from the staffer to volunteer on the campaign. This is also a violation of House rules. The staffer said that the responsibility of coordinating the invite list—while in the same breath noting an intention to solicit contributions—was a bigger red flag.
“My initial reaction was that’s really messed up,” the source said. “I interpreted that as: Let the subordinate to do the traceable act.”
Emails continued to instruct the source to participate in the office staff and campaign’s coordination. The messages went unanswered. The pressure continued, and the staffer resigned.
“I was trying to send out non-verbal signals that I’m not comfortable,” the source said. “They put me in a box, so what was I supposed to do? Once you have a meeting of the minds, then there’s a conspiracy.”
The source told SJI that the reason for coming forward now, a little more than a month before the election and almost a year and a half after the emails were sent, is to “close that chapter of my life.”
The source, who has no known connection to the opposing campaign, added, “Public resources should be used for public purposes, not campaign work.”
Van der Heide and Meri Maben, Honda’s district director, who has worked in that role for 13 years and was included in many of the emails provided to SJI, declined requests for interviews. Sources described Maben, who has volunteered her home for Honda fundraisers, as an incredibly dedicated employee. “She works basically two jobs,” the source said. “She’s doing the campaign job and her own job.”
In an email, Scudder said that both women have followed the rules in assisting the Honda campaign.
“Both Jennifer and Meri, and all members of the staff, only work on the campaign on their own time. This is office policy. Both of them have supported the Congressman for years, and are happy to volunteer to help when they are able,” he wrote.
Several former staffers told SJI that Honda’s office does make efforts to differentiate official office work from campaign efforts. Anil Babbar, a former Honda field rep who now works as the director of government affairs for the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors, told SJI, “I did some campaign work, but it was on my time.” Babbar, who attended the State Department function, added that when he was with Honda's office, “there was a firewall between us and the campaign staff.”
It’s clear from the emails, though, that Van der Heide and Maben were far from the only publicly-salaried employees who carried out campaign activities. Emails from February 2013—more than a month before Khanna would announce his candidacy—show that Heystek often sent messages to as many as 20 staffers and interns at a time, instructing them to blast out links to positive press about Honda through Facebook and Twitter.
Quick to acknowledge that a slew of social media posts from staff would raise eyebrows, Van der Heide sent a reply-all to one of Heystek’s emails: “sorry folks but this shouldn't be coming from official staff en mass we need outsiders, not us.” The bottom of that email, like most others from Van der Heide’s Gmail account, included a signature with her official title as chief of staff for “Congressman Mike Honda (CA-17).”
Heystek resigned as campaign manager in March and did not respond to an emailed interview request.
In another twist, Honda’s office may have also broken rules on staffers carrying out personal errands for Honda. In one email, a staffer instructs the source of SJI's emails that they need to spend part of their work hours helping Honda set up his personal Netflix account on his home TV.
Leaving aside the fact that Honda’s race with Khanna has often focused on whether Honda is tech savvy enough to represent Silicon Valley, the Honda staffer acknowledges that the request could have gray-zoned the propriety limits of public tax dollar funded activity. “Yes,” the staffer writes, “that’s a request boarding personal (sic), but such is life.”
The House Ethics Manual warns against handling the boss’ personal matters on the official clock. “I wouldn’t have applied to a job that has something like [setting up Netflix accounts],” the source said.
Khanna’s campaign declined comment for this story.
The two candidates will meet Oct. 6 for their first and only debate of the campaign. Twenty-nine days later, Nov. 4, voters will finally have their say.