Rep. Mike Honda’s office denies it engaged in a pay-to-play scheme to grant campaign contributors and prospects access to government events, despite internal emails released last week by Metro and San Jose Inside that suggest otherwise. The revelations engulfed Honda’s reelection campaign in a widening controversy as local officials in the congressman’s district called for an investigation and large newspapers around the state picked up on the story.
An additional, previously unseen email could make Honda’s claims of strict separation more difficult.
A Feb. 9, 2013 message from Honda chief of staff Jennifer Van der Heide discussing an official State Department Roundtable asked then-campaign manager Lamar Heystek about progress in securing campaign money and endorsements. The email bore the subject, “Suggested South Asian Invitees for State Dept. Roundtable.”
House rules forbid using government resources and official positions to raise money for elective office. Honda’s challenger, Ro Khanna, on Friday called on the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate the matter. Honda’s campaign said it welcomed an inquiry and cast Khanna’s concerns as a “desperate” campaign strategy.
Honda’s official spokesman, Ken Scudder, also drew a hard line, saying that “it is the policy of the Congressman, and under the rules of House Ethics, for the office to keep separate official work and campaign activities.
“While it is commonplace for office staff to choose to volunteer their time on campaigns, all of our staff who volunteer do so on their own time and volition, and without the use of official resources,” the statement continued. “In this instance, while not a violation of House Rules, we should have taken more care to prevent the appearance of coordination.”
SJI’s initial report noted that Van der Heide’s email was sent on a Saturday, which gave the congressman’s campaign handlers an opening to spin the apparent violation as an “appearance“ rather than an actual example of illegal “coordination” between the legislative and political branches of the Honda organization. Honda’s team defended the message as a chief of staff’s use of her personal time—even as she discussed trading access to a U.S. government event for campaign support.
The new email, time stamped at 10:07am on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, indicates Van der Heide took direction from the campaign on who to select for inclusion on the State Department event guest list. Sent to Heystek and a former staffer, the subject line read: “Do you have the list of proposed invitees to the Indian roundtable with State ready? We need to start sending out.” The only text in the body of the message is Van der Heide’s official work signature, which lists her as chief of staff for “Congressman Mike Honda (CA 17).”
The email’s timing confirms that Honda’s office and his campaign were using their private email accounts to align their efforts in the middle of the work day—rather than just after-hours and on weekends.
Since last week’s report, an additional former employee came forward and reinforced the accounts given by colleagues. During the years the staffer worked in Honda’s office, campaign activity on taxpayer time was routinely mixed in with official duties.
“While the office can technically say, ‘Hey, do it on personal time,’ there really is no discussion about taking a 10-minute break, or saying if you want to do this, take a 10-minute break,” the staffer told SJI.
One frequently used euphemism facilitated the wholesale conversion of legislative staff to campaign use at the flick of a switch. Multiple sources confirmed that Honda’s district director, Meri Maben, who was included on almost all of the internal emails SJI reviewed, led weekly meetings called “coffee break.” These meetings took an informal tone that ranged from political gossip and campaign discussions to instructions on official work.
“We didn’t do anything different except say, ‘coffee break,’” a staffer told SJI. “Coffee breaks were for items that were not officially part of the office work. It ranged from simple gossip to campaign stuff. Coffee break was a catch-all for almost everything.”
The staffer also said that employees sometimes used their personal cell phones to do campaign work at their desks, and some people even made campaign calls from the office’s landlines.
Personal errands for the congressman were also distributed throughout the staff. In SJI’s original report on Honda’s office, an email showed that staffers were directed to set up Honda’s Netflix account and show him how to use his Apple TV.
“Yes,” a staffer wrote at the time, “that’s a request [bordering on] personal, but such is life.”
“That was one of the frustrating things,” a staffer told SJI this week. “I can’t do my case work over here, because I’m doing work at the congressman’s house.”
Neither Honda nor his key staff members have been available to answer questions. When SJI repeated its request for interviews with Maben and Van der Heide, Honda’s spokesman said he would “make a note of that.”