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Tim Bishop ethics issue generates debate

Tim Bishop speaks during a debate with Randy

Tim Bishop speaks during a debate with Randy Altschuler at the Fairfield at St. James community Monday. (Oct. 1, 2012) Credit: Barry Sloan

A fundraising email from Rep. Tim Bishop's campaign to a constituent who was seeking Bishop's help with a fireworks permit is prompting debate among ethics watchdogs about whether the email was appropriate.

It's become a key campaign issue, and experts say the question is whether the campaign's May 23 approach to the homeowner constituted a solicitation in exchange for an official action. That could violate House Ethics rules or federal criminal statutes, they said.

The issue has spawned a series of new attack ads by Bishop's Republican opponent, St. James businessman Randy Altschuler, and outside political action committees that help GOP candidates.

A Conservative Smithtown councilman, Robert Creighton, has formally requested a House Ethics investigation, and Altschuler has challenged Bishop to also seek a House probe. Bishop denies any impropriety and has said he would cooperate with any "fair-minded" review.

Jan Baran, a Washington elections law and government ethics expert, said the situation will come down to whether there's direct evidence of a quid pro quo.

"But the timing raises the appearance, so there's at least a lot of explaining to do," Baran said. "Why were they in contact right after the call for help? Was it a coincidence? You can diffuse the timing of events by saying they don't have anything to do with each other, but it doesn't sound like a coincidence."

Stanley Brand, a Washington lawyer who has defended Democrats and Republicans in ethics cases, said the evidence available publicly doesn't appear to warrant an ethics rules violation by Bishop, let alone a criminal one. "It's not enough. What the Justice Department requires for this stuff is a quid pro quo, a direct connection between some official act and something of benefit."

Brand said that while the House Ethics Committee "has a lower standard than the Justice Department . . . it can't just be coincidental assistance of a constituent and someone in a campaign office calling them."

Bishop has strongly criticized Altschuler for one of his ads, which quotes a watchdog group suggesting that the action could be a federal crime.

"I've helped thousands of constituents because it's the right thing to do," Bishop said in an ad addressing the fundraising incident. "And I've never asked for anything in return."

Coincidence or not?

The controversy arose after a Sagaponack hedge fund investor sought Bishop's aid. Eric Semler asked Bishop to help him get permits for a fireworks display for his son's bar mitzvah.

Bishop, a five-term Southampton Democrat, says his fundraisers wrote to Semler -- two days after Semler asked Bishop for help in getting the federal environmental permit -- simply as a follow-up after Semler first expressed interest in giving to the campaign.

Semler did not return multiple requests for comment for this story. He told Politico in August that Bishop's staff first solicited a donation -- but that neither they nor Bishop ever asked for money in exchange for help with the permits.

Semler and his wife, Tracy, each gave $2,500, the maximum for an individual, to Bishop's campaign on June 26, records show. Bishop later donated the funds to a veterans charity.

According to emails obtained by Newsday, Bishop was asked to intervene with permitting authorities on Semler's behalf on May 21, and his campaign fundraisers emailed Semler about a donation on May 23.

Bishop's daughter Molly, who heads the congressman's campaign fundraising, wrote on May 23 to Semler that the campaign's finance chairman, Robert F.X. Sillerman, had "suggested" to her father that Semler was interested in donating.

"We are going to be in a tough, expensive campaign, and so we are very grateful for your willingness to be of help," Molly Bishop wrote.

A spokesman for Sillerman did not make the entertainment mogul available for comment.

'An appearance problem'

Bishop campaign officials say the congressman lobbied the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to speed up its environmental review. The agency approved the permit on May 25, and Semler's home fireworks show for his son's bar mitzvah occurred as planned on May 26.

Semler thanked Bishop in a May 28 email. "Your relentless focus on the task was so impressive," Semler wrote.

The event was handled by Fireworks by Grucci. In a May 29 email to vice president of sales and marketing Phil Butler, Semler called the initial fundraising email from Bishop's campaign "really gross -- they didn't hesitate to solicit me in the heat of the battle" over the permit. Butler declined to comment. The company's executive vice president is Felix J. Grucci Jr., a Republican who lost his House seat to Bishop in 2002.

Jock Friedly, of the congressional watchdog group LegiStorm, said that had there been direct evidence that Bishop's campaign was linking its donation request to the official permit action, it wouldn't matter who first raised the issue of a contribution. Without evidence of Bishop directly linking the campaign contribution to the permitting, criminal charges are unlikely and it becomes murkier as to whether there was an ethics violation, Friedly said.

"I wouldn't think this would be a criminal affair, and I even think it's not an ethics issue, if he gave the money back," he said.

But "no matter what the facts are, I think Bishop's got an appearance problem," Friedly said.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, said: "I don't know what really happened, but I know it's worthy of investigation on the emails alone."

With Tom Brune

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