U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop’s help in getting fireworks permits for a Hamptons bar mitzvah at the request of a businessman who later donated $5,000 to his campaign has the congressman’s Republican opponent and at least one government watchdog group questioning whether Bishop violated House ethics guidelines, or perhaps even laws.
Bishop, who has since donated the $5,000 to three veterans’ organizations “out of an abundance of caution,” calls the suggestions by Randy Altschuler’s campaign “outrageous” and “unfounded.” He said he helped facilitate the fireworks show — coincidentally produced by a company owned by the man Bishop defeated in his first run for Congress in 2002 — merely as a service to a constituent.
The controversy comes as both campaigns gear up for what is expected to be a bare-knuckle rematch of the country’s last race decided in 2010, with the Democratic incumbent eking out a victory by fewer than 600 votes.
A story first reported Wednesday by Politico notes that the same week Bishop helped obtain approval for the fireworks display from environmental agencies concerned about the impact to an endangered bird known as the piping plover, the congressman’s daughter, Molly, who works as a fundraiser for his campaign, sent an email to businessman Eric Semler.
Semler, who was holding a May 26 bar mitzvah for his son at his Southampton home, got a letter from Molly Bishop saying 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 explains that Semler and his wife could each contribute up to $5,000 by June 26; after that the limit would be $2,500 each.
Semler sent The Associated Press a statement Thursday saying neither Bishop nor his staff sought any contribution as a condition to receiving his help.
“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.”
Three days after the party, Politico reported, Semler sent an email to Grucci executives complaining that Bishop “didn’t hesitate to solicit me in the heat of battle.” He called the request, for up to $10,000, “really gross.” A month later, Semler sought a $7,500 refund from Grucci after a neighbor’s Bentley was damaged. His statement Thursday did not address those aspects of the Politico report.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said 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.”
She said she was not sure whether the congressman could face an indictment for that specific action, but suggested if a pattern of such activity could be established, a prosecution was possible.
“It’s clear this is an ethics violation; House rules prohibit tying official actions to campaign contributions.”
Altschuler campaign manager Diana Weir said in a statement that Bishop’s work for Semler, as well as prior complaints that he employs his daughter on his campaign staff, “clearly demonstrates a pattern of unethical and, in this case, possibly illegal behavior.”
Bishop countered that Altschuler’s campaign has a history of “making unfounded personal attacks on me,” adding, “these new reckless accusations of criminal activity should not be a surprise.” He also boasted of his work on constituent services. “I’m very proud of the countless Republicans, Democrats, and Independents that my office helps with problems such as these each and every month.”
Felix Grucci, the owner of the fireworks company, did not respond to phone messages and an email seeking comment. Grucci, a Republican, served one term in Congress before being defeated by Bishop in a tight race in 2002.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.