Sept. 16, 2010 -- Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton has been caught on tape asking a lobbyist for a campaign contribution and reminding the lobbyist of her position on an important committee that affects the lobbyist's "sector."
"I'm simply candidly calling to ask for a contribution," says Rep. Norton, a Democrat from the District of Columbia, on the tape. "As the senior member of the, um, committee and a sub-committee chair, we have (chuckles) obligations to raise, uh, funds."
Norton's office does not deny the authenticity of the tape, but calls the message a "standard request" and emphasizes that it was first circulated by the web site Big Government, run by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, who has been criticized for misleading reporting in the past.
But good government types say that while this kind of phone call may be legal, it is not appropriate.
"This is the kind of heavy-handed -- not to mention ham-handed -- fundraising tactic that leads the public to believe that votes may be bought," says Sheila Krumholz, executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics. "As the House Ethics Manual advises, Members should not connect their actions in Congress to the money. By noting her committee assignment and seniority, and the 'sector' of this individual, she's effectively saying to this donor, 'You should be giving me money because I have power over the issues you care about.' "
"By extension," said Krumholz, "one might reasonably infer that what she really means is, 'If you give me money, I may give you favorable treatment in return.' Whether or not that is what she meant to infer, she owes her constituents an explanation."
The House Ethics Manual (2008 edition) states that "a Member should not sponsor or participate in any solicitation that offers donors any special access to the Member in the Member's official capacity." Making any kind of solicitation from a federal building, even if from a personal cell phone, is against the law.
The message was published Thursday by Big Government, which did not name the source of the recording or identify the lobbyist who had received the call from Norton.
On the tape, Norton mentions the unnamed lobbyists donations to other House members on her committee. "Uh, I noticed that you have given to uh, other colleagues on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee," says Norton. " I am a, um, senior member, a twenty-year veteran and am Chair of the Sub-committee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management."
"I'm handling the largest economic development project in the United States now…I was, frankly, uh, uh, surprised to see that we don't have a record, so far as I can tell, of your having given to me despite my uh, long and deep, uh, work. In fact, it's been my major work, uh, on the committee and sub-committee it's been essentially in your sector."
Norton's office told ABC News that the call was made from campaign headquarters, not from a federal building and that "[Andrew Breitbart] is circulating a voicemail of a standard request made by candidates to potential donors who do not know the candidates or their work. Norton, therefore, identified herself as a subcommittee chair and the kind of work she has done in subcommittee. Norton is a longtime supporter of public financing of campaigns, but barring that, candidates from all parties regularly raise funds in calls by first identifying who they are and what they have done… Her request fully complied with legal and ethical requirements."
Mike Flynn, editor of BigGovernment.com, told ABC News that the tape was presented unaltered, except for one deletion made before the site received it. "We didn't edit the audio. The source redacted [the lobbyist's] name from the very beginning of the clip. I don't know the exact date, but it was sometime at the end of August. I doubt the source will be more specific as it would help Holmes Norton isolate who leaked the message."
He added that he does not know the identity of the lobbyist who received the call.
"Congresswoman Norton's 'surprise' at not having received money already from this individual with interests in her area of jurisdiction, despite never having even solicited him or her, just confirms that this is the way the political fund raising game is played every day of the week in Washington," says Krumholz. "The only difference here is her lack of discretion and the recorded evidence of it."