Congressman Mike Honda has an inauspicious anniversary on the horizon.
Just a little more than a year ago, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) issued a report that cited “substantial reason to believe” the South Bay representative’s office abused House resources to keep him in office, and may have even traded official access and favors for campaign contributions.
Both actions would likely constitute violations of federal law.
Since that time there has been little movement in the ethics probe, as a referral to the House Committee on Ethics to continue investigating Honda’s office does not set any deadlines for announcements. Former Honda campaign manager Doug Greven, who the OCE labeled “a non-cooperating witness” when recommending he be compelled to testify via subpoena, had yet to be interviewed as of just a few months ago, parties tracking the investigation say.
However, one source tells Metro that Greven has since been contacted to testify in the ethics probe. The former Honda campaign manager did not respond to interview requests.
A concern amongst supporters of Ro Khanna—who is challenging Honda in a rematch of the 2014 election—is that congressional watchdogs are simply trying to run out the clock on the investigation. Khanna’s surprising June primary victory gives him an advantage going into November, and a $1.45 million war chest as of July is expected to propel him in the fall. If that’s the case, Honda’s ethics probe would then become moot, as there is little incentive to investigate a defeated congressman.
“It’s been ongoing for a year,” Khanna said, referencing the OCE’s report. “It shows how serious it is and it’s another argument against re-electing someone who is literally facing a huge ethics scandal and ongoing investigation. He still hasn't held anyone responsible. He still hasn’t apologized. He owes the district greater transparency.”
Of the things Honda’s camp does well, transparency is not high on the list.
Last week, the eight-term incumbent’s campaign began circulating a report to hand-picked reporters to write about Honda’s legal defense fund, which was created at the end of last year to help pay legal bills related to his ethics probe—total costs have exceeded $200,000. In a bureaucratic quirk, the report was due at the end of the last month but there is no requirement for the Legislative Resource Center, which is located in Washington, D.C. and provides documents strictly through in-person requests, to release the report for 30 days.
Even after Honda’s operatives floated the documents for stories in the Los Angeles Times and Mercury News, with a caveat that they not publish the actual report, Honda’s camp refused to provide the documents to Metro, whose reporting sparked the initial investigation after a whistleblower came forward with internal emails.
The two media reports about the defense fund stated that Honda paid his two law firms—Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Miller & Chevalier—a total of $32,000 in the first half of this year. Honda relied on Bay Area businesses and a few specially tabbed supporters, dubbed “cranes” as part of a special fundraising strategy, to help him raise $36,950.
The disclosure that Honda continues to spend time and money on a legal defense fund, after a report that noted little activity to begin the year, suggests the ethics probe has not yet run its course.
“It's highly unusual that something like this isn’t resolved,” Khanna said. “They could have just issued a letter of reprimand, but obviously there is more to it. How long is this going to last?”
If recent Honda campaign activity is taken into consideration, perhaps not any time soon.
On the morning of July 31, Honda’s campaign sent out an email blast urgently requesting supporters to contribute before the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) deadline at the stroke of midnight.
“The FEC deadline is at midnight tonight,” the email said. “We are relying on you to step up with a contribution to help us meet our end-of-month fundraising goals so we can stay on track to win this race.”
This would have been par for the course of almost every congressional campaign that touts its “grassroots” support, except for one detail: No FEC deadline falls on July 31.
Ignoring requests for a phone call interview, Honda campaign manager Michael Beckendorf wrote in an email that the campaign’s erroneous message was “part of a subject line test that reached a narrow audience. The error was caught and corrected before going out to our broader list.”
Beckendorf refused to provide answers to follow-up questions such as: how the error was corrected; what the campaign means by a “subject line test;” why the message contained incorrect information in the body of the email, and not just the subject line; how many people received the email; how much money was raised on the false deadline day in question; and whether it planned to refund any money raised via the deceptive pitch.
Vedant Patel, a spokesman for the Honda campaign, also sidestepped specific questions in an email by noting that “[f]undraising e-mails go through edits all the time on campaigns.” He then said “the real story” is Khanna’s donor support from Wall Street and wealthy conservatives.
Previous reports have found that Honda and Khanna both receive support from upper-crust Republicans, but Honda’s campaign has a clear lead when it comes to playing fast and loose with the rules.
The congressman’s own campaign website has routinely suggested that Honda has the support of President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, despite the fact that both decided not to endorse him in this race as they did in 2014—before the OCE ethics investigation was launched.
A “Get Involved” tab on the congressman’s campaign website directs to a photo of Honda and the president and instructs people to: “Join President Obama and Support Mike Honda for Congress.”
A YouTube video from 2014 remains on the website, and it includes the same image of Honda and Obama, suggesting he still has the support of the president. Beckendorf, Honda’s campaign manager, again did not respond to a request for comment.
UPDATE: Within hours of this story going live, Rep. Mike Honda's campaign removed a photo that said President Obama endorsed his candidacy in the 2016 election cycle. A video suggesting as much remains on the site.
UPDATE II: San Jose Inside spoke with Mercury News reporter Eric Kurhi, who said that the Honda campaign initially resisted providing the report without knowing the nature of the story to be written. Kurhi refused the terms and Honda’s spokesman eventually provided the report.