Ro Khanna and two locally elected officials held a press conference Friday calling on the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate the pay-to-play coordination between Rep. Mike Honda’s staff and his re-election campaign.
The complaint, filed by Milpitas Mayor Jose Esteves and Cupertino Councilmember Rod Sinks, cites a report San Jose Inside published this week detailing a range of House rules flouted by Honda's office. Amongst the violations of House rules, internal emails made public in SJI's report show that Honda’s chief of staff, Jennifer Van der Heide, coordinated with Honda’s then-campaign manager, Lamar Heystek, on an invitation list for a State Department Roundtable—an official event—while discussing the collection of financial support for Honda’s bid to remain in office.
Van Der Heide, in an email sent Feb. 9, 2013, discussed with Heystek the collection of money and endorsements for MH (Mike Honda’s initials):
“Great lists—how are we doing outreach to them for $?” she wrote. “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.”
A provision in the House Ethics Manual states, “[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.”
Khanna, who is challenging Honda to represent District 17, which includes parts of the South Bay that span from Cupertino to Fremont, had not yet announced his candidacy during the time these emails were sent.
"The internal emails released this week are the latest sign that Congressman Honda has become part of the problem in Washington," Khanna said in a statement. "He's more focused on using his office to raise money and secure his re-election than in getting things done for the people of his district. Voters in the 17th district deserve an immediate investigation so they know whether Congressman Honda has broken ethics rules before casting their ballots."
Honda’s office put out a statement Wednesday claiming that no House rules were violated. But in that same email, the office admits it “should have taken more care to prevent the appearance of coordination.”
So if the office did not break any laws, what exactly should Honda’s staffers have done differently?
“We’re going to pretty much stay with what’s in the statement there,” Ken Scudder, Honda’s communications director, told SJI on Thursday.
One expert on political ethics, however, sees no gray area in the emails.
In an article published Thursday, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Carla Marinucci quoted Jessica Levinson, a law professor who teaches political ethics at Loyola University of Los Angeles, as saying: “As far as I can see, those are clear violations and worth talking about.”
Below is the complaint filed with Omar Ashmawy, staff director and chief counsel for the Office of Congressional Ethics:
Dear Mr. Ashmawy,
This letter requests that the Office of Congressional Ethics investigate the serious allegation published by San Jose Inside that Congressman Michael Honda, representative of California’s 17th Congressional District, has impermissibly used House of Representatives resources and his official position to influence his re-election campaign. The article, first published in San Jose Inside on September 24, 2015, outlines Congressman Honda’s misuse of House resources.
First, the article describes a pay-to-play arrangement whereby Congressman Honda’s chief-of-staff Jennifer Van der Heide coordinated with then-Honda campaign manager Lamar Heystek regarding potential invitees to an official State Department Roundtable. The coordination emails show Van der Heide and Heystek’s clear intention to use the State Department Roundtable as a means of soliciting campaign contributions for Congressman Honda’s re-election and rewarding supporters of Congressman Honda’s campaign:
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.
These actions violate House Ethics Rules. As outlined on page 150 of 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 corollary of these rules is that Members and staff are not to take or withhold any official action on the basis of the campaign contributions or support of the involved individuals.” Page 309 of the House Ethics Manual likewise admonishes: “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.” If it is proven that his staff used an official State Department Roundtable to reward current campaign supporters and gain new ones, Congressman Honda violated the House Ethics Rules.
The San Jose Inside article also demonstrates a potential violation of the general prohibition against using official resources—including congressional staff time—for campaign or political purposes. This rule derives from 31 U.S.C. § 1301, which instructs that “[a]ppropriations shall be applied only to the objects for which the appropriations were made except as otherwise provided by law.” The House Ethics Rules further state that “in no event may a Member or office compel a House employee to do campaign work” and “forbid Members and senior staff from...directing or otherwise pressuring [House employees] to do [campaign] work.”
But the article highlights the direction and pressure faced by House employees to assist Congressman Honda’s re-election campaign: Initially, off-hours campaign work was assigned to a House staffer, prior to a request that the staffer volunteer on the campaign or the employee’s volunteering to do so. Later, “[e]mails 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.” Misuse of House staff time and coordination between the campaign and the official House staff is further demonstrated in the article via an email showing then-Honda campaign manager Heystek instructing House staffers and interns to send out links to positive press about Honda through Facebook and Twitter.
Lastly, the article highlights one final potential violation of the House Ethics Rules: staffers completed personal errands for Congressman Honda. The House Ethics Manual specifies that a Member’s Representational Allowance, including expenditures for staff and official staff time, may not be used for personal expenses. The San Jose Article provides evidence of at least one such instance where an official staffer completed a personal task: an email requesting that a House employee set up Congressman Honda’s Netflix account and Apple TV. Given this incident, we think it appropriate for the Committee to investigate what other misuse Congressman Honda has made of government resources.
As a result of the potential serious nature of the alleged violations of the House Ethics Rules outlined in the troubling investigative report in San Jose Inside, we request that the Office of Congressional Ethics investigate this matter thoroughly and promptly, immediately publish all findings, and sanction Congressman Honda appropriately.