Opinion: The skinny on the Tim Bishop ethics probe

Congressman Tim Bishop held a press conference in Orient this morning to announce he's introducing legislation to keep Plum Island from being auctioned off.
Congressman Tim Bishop at a press conference in Orient in July.

These facts have been placed into the record: Back a long time ago, before recent memory, in 2002, Tim Bishop defeated Felix Grucci, of the famed Fireworks by Grucci company in Bellport, to become the East End’s congressman.

Then, last year, a Sagaponack man who wanted to have fireworks at his son’s bar mitzvah wandered into the decade-old wound of that election and started a fireworks show of his own. In late May of 2012, just days before his son’s bar mitzvah, hedge fund investor Eric Semler found out that Grucci hadn’t been able to get all the permits they needed for the fireworks. He asked a business acquaintance, former chancellor of Southampton College and Tim Bishop’s campaign finance chair Robert Sillerman, for help.

Mr. Sillerman called Mr. Bishop, who was knee-deep in a tight re-election campaign. Mr. Bishop greased the wheels and helped the fireworks get off the ground. Mr. Bishop asked Mr. Sillerman to ask Mr. Semler for a campaign contribution. Mr. Semler complained about the expense to the Gruccis when trying to get a refund for the fireworks fee and set off a much bigger firestorm that spread to Mr. Bishop’s reelection campaign and into the halls of Congress.

This week, the House Committee on Ethics, which has been investigating this series of affairs, released a semi-fascinating blow-by-blow account of what transpired last summer, which is available here, and said they’re going to continue an investigation into whether Mr. Bishop did anything wrong. The Office of Congressional Ethics had given the committee a deadline of Wednesday, Sept. 11, to decide whether to pursue a further investigation into Mr. Bishop’s case and three other cases.

What’s detailed in the 177-page report is a crass look into how the sausage factory of political business is done. But whether it rises to the level of a crime or an ethics violation remains to be seen. Mr. Bishop acknowledged this week that the U.S. Attorney’s office of the Eastern District of New York has also investigated the case, and an FBI agent interviewed a Southampton Town Trustee involved in the controversy over the winter, but the Justice Department hasn’t confirmed if that investigation is continuing.

The timeline of what happened last summer is clearly detailed in the report.

After learning of Mr. Semler’s issues with the fireworks show, Mr. Bishop contacted Southampton Town Trustee Fred Havemeyer to try to massage the process. (You can call the trustees directly yourselves too if you need help with anything, without asking your congressman to intervene. Their number is 631.287.5717).

On May 22, after calling Mr. Havemeyer, Mr. Bishop sent an email to Mr. Sillerman saying “ok, so just call me the frigging mailman-we are all set…Hey, would you be willing to reach out to him to ask for a contribution? If he donates before June 26, he and his wife can each do 5 large-if it is after June 26, they can each do a max of $2,500.”

Five minutes later, Mr. Sillerman emailed Mr. Semler, saying “So I guess you and your wife really want to donate $5K each to Tim Bishop, right?” Mr. Semler responded, saying “absolutely! how do we do it?” Fourteen minutes later, Mr. Bishop sent an email to Mr. Sillerman stating “maybe we should be calling you the mailman.”

The next day, Mr. Bishop’s finance director, who is his daughter, Molly Bishop, followed up to arrange the donation. Mr. Semler told the Office of Congressional Ethics he never spoke directly with Mr. Bishop about a campaign contribution.

At issue in the ongoing investigation is a section of the congressional ethics manual that states “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.”

“The board finds that there is substantial reason to believe that Representative Bishop sought a campaign contribution, through an intermediary associated with his congressional campaign committee, from a constituent, because of or in connection with his performance of an official act,” according to the report.

Mr. Bishop, however, said in a statement this week that he feels vindicated by the ethics committee’s report.

“The report released today confirms that the allegations made against me last summer were politically orchestrated, and I am confident that the ongoing review of this matter will show that I acted in good faith to assist a constituent in need,” he said in a statement. Mr. Bishop’s attorney, also issued a detailed response, available here.

In the end, Mr. Bishop received an online donation of $5,000 from a credit card belonging to Mr. Semler’s limited liability company on July 9, though his campaign had erroneously reported to the FEC that he received $2,500 each from Mr. Semler and his wife on June 26, the deadline for primary campaign contributions. That discrepancy is also under investigation by the ethics office. Mr. Bishop told OCE that he had believed the contribution was made on June 26 and Molly Bishop told the OCE she believed the couple had made a joint contribution. Campaign finance law allows contributions of no more than $2,500 per person after the primary deadline; that requirement is the same for limited liability companies owned solely by one person, as is the case with Mr. Semler’s company.

The report documents that Mr. Bishop later gave the $5,000 to several veterans groups after the controversy came to light.

Mr. Bishop continued to help Mr. Semler navigate the bureaucracy of environmental regulatory agencies over the course of the next several days after the original discussion about the contribution. On the morning of May 25, Mr. Bishop sent an email to Mr. Semler telling him that the Department of Fish and Wildlife said the fireworks were “good to go.” That afternoon, Mr. Semler sent Mr. Bishop a thank you email, saying he “would be nowhere” without Mr. Bishop. Just one minute later, Mr. Semler sent an email to Mr. Bishop addressed to Molly Bishop, saying he’d be happy to give a donation to her dad.

Mr. Semler told the congressional ethics office he didn’t know why he sent the email to Mr. Bishop and not his daughter, and Mr. Bishop, who forwarded the email to his daughter under the subject line “fyi,” told the office that he was “uncomfortable” with the email because it was sent to his government address.

Five days later, Mr. Semler again sent an email to Mr. Bishop gushing that “it would have never happened without you. You give me renewed hope that convoluted political bureaucracy can be surmounted. Your relentless focus on the task was so impressive.”

Mr. Semler apparently told a totally different story about how he felt to the folks at Grucci headquarters. The OCE’s record has an internal email from one Grucci employee to another dated May 29, 2012, which included a forwarded email from Mr. Semler that said “I had to give $10k to tim bishop’s campaign for his help with the fireworks…Really gross — they didn’t hesitate to solicit me in the heat of battle.” Mr. Semler reportedly told the OCE that he couldn’t find the original email and didn’t know if he’d written that language. At that point he hadn’t even yet made the donation, which turned out to be half the amount he’d told Grucci it was. On June 21, a Grucci employee sent an email to Mr. Semler asking if he had to “pay Representative Bishop for his help.” Mr. Semler responded “Yes-$10k.”

“Because the constituent was in a dispute with Grucci about a refund for the fireworks event, he told the OCE that he wanted them to “factor” in the contribution he made to Representative Bishop’s campaign committee,” according to the report.

On August 9 of last year, after the D.C. newspaper Politico got wind of the story and grilled Mr. Bishop, the congressman texted Mr. Semler pleading with him to set the record straight. The content of their texts is in the report.

“I was unable to explain your Admittedly exaggerated statement to Grucci and what you and I both know to be the truth. This story is not gonna go away and it will breed others-I am being screwed here simply because I responded to your request for help. I hope your refund from Grucci was worth my job,” wrote Mr. Bishop.

Mr. Semler responded: “I spoke to the reporter and defended you the best I could. I told him the bald truth that you did nothing wrong, that you are an outstanding congressman who gets things done in an era of gridlock and that you never asked me for a donation while you were trying to help me. I am sorry that you are being treated so unfairly.”

Time will tell whether Congress thinks this is a big enough deal to punish Mr. Bishop for what happened.

The House Committee on Ethics also announced this week they are continuing to investigate Rep. Michelle Bachmann, of Minnesota for allegedly using campaign money to fund her book tour and using $40,000 from her political action committee to pay a consultant, when her PAC wasn’t authorized to subsidize her campaign and Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois for accepting an impermissible gift of a $25,000 trip to Taiwan from the government of Taiwan. The committee dropped its investigation into whether Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts intentionally failed to disclose some of his wife’s income to the IRS.

It seems here that the biggest dope in the whole situation is Mr. Semler, who could have prevented this whole mess by asking his son to donate his bar mitzvah money to a food pantry to help the poor Jews of the Hamptons instead of holding a fireworks show, an ostentatious display of wealth that only adds to the East End’s already highly charged anti-semitic atmosphere. For the cost of that fireworks show, we could have all had an awful lot of matzoh ball soup.


Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

3 thoughts on “Opinion: The skinny on the Tim Bishop ethics probe

  • September 15, 2013 at 7:14 am
    Permalink

    Matzoh ball soup at the food pantries – I’ll vote for that!

    Reply
  • September 21, 2013 at 10:47 pm
    Permalink

    Beth, that was the best reporting on this so-called scandal I have seen. Keep up the great reporting

    Reply
  • September 29, 2013 at 5:47 pm
    Permalink

    Great article Beth. So impressed. Your site is amazing. “Internet news” with true journalistic skill and ethics.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Marie Merkel Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.

Please prove you're human:

%d bloggers like this: