Mike Honda narrowly defeated Ro Khanna last fall for a seventh consecutive term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Both men have already announced their intention to run again in 2016, but the congressman may have to justify his record to more than voters.
For the last several months, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) has been reviewing alleged improper coordination between Honda’s campaign and his official House staff. Whether this review leads to a broader investigation or discipline against the congressman is uncertain, due to the secretive nature and malleable timelines in which the OCE carries out its business. While the OCE does not comment on pending matters, Honda’s office acknowledged on Tuesday that a review has been taking place.
“The congressman and his staff continue to cooperate fully with the OCE’s review of the matter,” said Lauren Smith, a spokesperson in Honda’s office. “Out of respect for the process, we cannot confirm specifics or discuss any details at this time.”
In September 2014, San Jose Inside reported emails that showed Honda’s longtime chief of staff, Jennifer Van der Heide, and other House employees coordinated with Honda’s re-election campaign on invitations to an official State Department event. The goal, according to the emails, was to target influential South Asian donors for campaign contributions.
In an email to Honda’s then-campaign manager, Lamar Heystek, as well as House district director Meri Maben, Van der Heidi wrote: “Great lists—how are we doing outreach to them for $?”
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.”
In the final weeks of last year’s race, Honda repeatedly dodged interviews on the matter. Instead, he made vague references to being disappointed and noting his staff apologized.
Additional emails provided last fall by Ruchit Agrawal, a former staffer, suggested that Honda routinely had House staffers carry out personal errands for the congressman on taxpayer time, which is also a violation of House rules.
Multiple sources have confirmed that OCE investigative counsel Scott Gast contacted them in the process of the review. Nailing down when any findings will be made public, if ever, is tricky.
Rod Sinks and Jose Esteves, respective mayors of Cupertino and Milpitas, filed a formal complaint with the OCE in September. Sinks received a receipt for that response in December from Paul Solis, the OCE’s deputy chief counsel. From there, at least two of the seven-person appointed OCE Board would have to recommend a first-phase review. The first board meeting of the year took place Jan. 29, and sources tell San Jose Inside they were contacted by OCE staff shortly after that date.
The board then had 30 days to decide if it wants to advance the review to a “second phase,” which would offer up to an additional 59 days to investigate the matter. That appears to have happened. On March 25, Gast and Solis met with Agrawal to discuss his time working in Honda’s district office, according to a transcript of that meeting.
Where the review goes from here is particularly hard to pinpoint. The OCE declined to say when its board has met beyond a quarterly report covering the first three months of the year. If the board feels that a second-phase review did not warrant a further investigation, or detect any wrongdoing, it’s possible that no documents will ever be made public.
However, sources say they were in contact with OCE staff throughout the spring. If transgressions are identified, the board could issue its own report or it could transfer findings to the House Ethics Committee to take up the investigation.
While no one has been required to speak with OCE investigators up to this point, including Honda, a broader investigation would provide subpoena power.
UPDATE: Mike Honda's campaign released a statement Wednesday afternoon admitting that the congressman is using campaign funds to pay for attorneys related to the OCE's review. Below is the full statement:
“The Congressman and his staff have fully cooperated with OCE in its review of allegations fueled by Rep. Honda’s political opponent in the last election after being raised by former disgruntled staffer,” said Adam Alberti, campaign spokesperson.
“The recent release of information contains more of the same allegations made by the same source (press reports) that was found to have made threats of violence against current staff, resulting in a court-ordered restraining order against him.
The legal expenses noted on Congressman Honda’s campaign expense report reflect costs incurred to ensure full cooperation with OCE. The FEC expressly allows for the use of campaign funds to pay legal expenses in connection with such inquires.
We believe that this complaint is inherently political, raised by Rep. Honda’s political opponents in a cheap effort to get votes.
Out of respect for the OCE and Committee, we cannot comment further until the process has concluded.”