Shown notes from his district office's staff retreat, Rep. Michael M. Honda allegedly acknowledged to ethics investigators that what he was seeing was "open to a lot of interpretation, but it doesn't look good."
The California Democrat's former campaign manager presented official staff with a strategy in which district office events would be used to raise money, according to Office of Congressional Ethics documents released Thursday. Doug Greven also identified target voting demographics to the district office staff, including "younger people, Caucasians and Latinos." Honda, who became the subject of an OCE probe in January — after narrowly winning an eighth term in a bitter contest with Democrat Ro Khanna — told investigators he was surprised by Greven's presentation. By late April, OCE found evidence that members of Honda's congressional staff researched potential opponents and prepared campaign materials, in addition to discussing election matters during official meetings and retreats.
The House Ethics Committee announced Thursday that it will extend its review of those allegations, though it stopped short of opening a full probe into the matter.
"The Committee notes that the mere fact of conducting further review of a referral, and any mandatory disclosure of such further review, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee," stated Ethics Chairman Charlie Dent, R-Pa., and ranking member Linda T. Sánchez, D-Calif.
OCE's wide-ranging investigation included internal emails exposed in a September 2014 report by San Jose Inside that show Honda’s longtime chief of staff, Jennifer Van der Heide, and his then-campaign coordinator, Lamar Heystek, strategizing to invite campaign contributors to an official State Department round table. Staff researched the campaign contribution histories of a list of potential invitees to cull names for an invite list, according to email records included in the report.
But in a July letter released as part of Thursday's document dump, lawyers representing Honda, Van der Heide and former District Director Meri Maben argued the actions do not violate applicable ethics rules or, "at worst, present narrow concerns." To the extent that his staff’s conduct could be construed to fall too close to crossing the line, Honda has already imposed "stringent remedial measures," they stated.
When questions began swirling about the allegations, Honda announced he would prohibit any official staff from volunteering on his campaign. A campaign spokesman did not respond to CQ Roll Call's inquiry on Thursday.
OCE's report suggests Honda’s congressional staff may have used information from the congressional office to raise funds for his past campaigns.
After his district office helped a person associated with the San Jose Sharks professional hockey team with a casework matter, official staff passed the contact info to the campaign side, suggesting that they solicit donations from the team's owners by inviting them to Honda’s upcoming birthday fundraising event.
A former legislative assistant told OCE that Honda's chief of staff asked her to prepare a "side-by-side memo," according to the report, comparing positions held by Khanna and her boss. Staffers also said they were asked to prepare an event brief for a fundraiser, and witnessed senior aides making campaign calls from the congressional district office.
Honda's district director told the OCE that Greven — the former campaign manager who declined OCE's request for interview — asked that she collect business cards from individuals attending official events and give those cards to the campaign to “build a database,” according to the report.
During the course of its review, OCE also found evidence that Honda's congressional staff assisted the 74-year-old with personal technology errands, such as activating his Netflix account and learning how to operate his Apple TV. But they concluded such requests were rare and often tied to equipment Honda needed for official purposes. OCE recommended the committee dismiss those allegations.
Khanna has already announced he will try to unseat Honda in 2016. Campaign spokesman Hari Sevugan called Thursday "a sad day for the Congress and the 17th district of California."
"What's been uncovered in this investigation to this point, based solely on voluntary testimony, is highly disturbing. We are hopeful that with subpoena power the people can get to the full truth of the allegations that Mike Honda offered special access to his biggest donors and used his office for his own political gain," Sevugan stated.
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