“Bar Mitzvah Shakedown”

Long Island Congressman Tim Bishop may be in hot water for soliciting a campaign contribution from a constituent whom he had just provided with special assistance.NY Congressman Helps Constituent, Then Asks for $$$

A Long Island, New York congressman is facing questions of a possible ethic violation for allegedly soliciting a major donation from a constituent after helping him obtain a special permit for a fireworks show at his son’s bar mitzvah in the Hamptons.

When Eric Semler, a resident of Southampton, was planning the bar mitzvah party, he asked Representative Tim Bishop (D-NY) to arrange the legal permission to present the fireworks display. According to Semler, while the congressman’s office was still working on the matter, his campaign staff asked the devoted father to donate as much as $10,000 to Bishop’s reelection campaign. The congressman is in a tight race with Republican Randy Altschuler to hold on to his seat. Semler reported that he ended up contributing $5,000 to Bishop.

The House Ethics Manual states that “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.”

For his part, the congressman denied any wrongdoing. “I did my job,” Bishop said. “I was asked to fix a problem for a constituent that I did not create. I fixed it.” He went on to insist, “I never directly solicited him. We told him how he could help. And then a month later, he helped.”

The accusation of a possible breach in congressional ethics has been spearheaded by Altschuler. While calling his opponent’s charge “outrageous” and “unfounded,” Bishop decided to protect himself by donating the $5,000 to three veterans’ organizations.

As reported on the Politico website, at around the same time that Bishop came through for Semler, the congressman’s daughter, Molly, who is employed as a fundraiser for her father’s campaign, sent an email to the satisfied constituent. In the message, Molly Bishop wrote that the campaign’s finance chairman “suggested to my dad that you were interested in contribution (sic) to his campaign and that I should be in touch directly with you.” She went on to specify that Semler and his wife could each contribute as much as $5,000.

Semler has apparently made conflicting comments on the matter. At one point, he defended his congressman’s actions, asserting that neither Bishop nor his staff ever requested a donation as a condition to receiving his assistance. “Later, after he had helped us, his campaign staff asked if we would want to contribute to his campaign,” Semler said. “Since we were impressed by how he had jumped in on our problem we were happy to make our contribution.”

But separately, Semler fired off an email to executives of the fireworks company that produced the spectacle, complaining that Bishop “didn’t hesitate to solicit me in the heat of battle,” and terming the contribution request “really gross.” Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, believes that Bishop “accepted an illegal gratuity, which is a federal crime. You’re not allowed to get contributions as a thank-you for using your official position.”

Sloan was unsure if this one instance would generate an indictment against the congressman, but she suggested that a prosecution might be possible if a pattern of this type of activity within his office could be established. “It’s clear this is an ethics violation,” she added. “House rules prohibit tying official actions to campaign contributions.”

Diana Weir, who serves as Altschuler’s campaign manager, stated that Bishop’s actions on behalf of Semler, along with prior complaints about the employment of his daughter on his campaign staff, “clearly demonstrates a pattern of unethical and, in this case, possibly illegal behavior.” Bishop responded by noting that Altschuler’s campaign has a record of “making unfounded personal attacks on me,” adding, “these new reckless accusations of criminal activity should not be a surprise.”