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Romanoff details White House contact over possible job

By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Deputy Political Director
  • NEW: Republican asks White House for list of races in which candidates urged to drop bids
  • Senate candidate in Colorado: White House aide contacted him about job openings
  • Andrew Romanoff challenging Sen. Michael Bennet in Democratic primary
  • "At no time was I promised a job," Romanoff says

Washington (CNN) -- A Senate candidate in Colorado challenging Sen. Michael Bennet in the Democratic primary said a senior White House aide suggested last year that three administration jobs might be open to him if he abandoned plans to run against Bennet. But the candidate, former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, also noted that the White House never offered him a position.

"In September 2009, shortly after the news media first reported my plans to run for the Senate, I received a call from Jim Messina, the president's deputy chief of staff. Mr. Messina informed me that the White House would support Sen. Bennet. I informed Mr. Messina that I had made my decision to run," Romanoff said in a statement released Wednesday evening.

"Mr. Messina also suggested three positions that might be available to me were I not pursuing the Senate race. He added that he could not guarantee my appointment to any of these positions. At no time was I promised a job, nor did I request Mr. Messina's assistance in obtaining one."

Romanoff said later that day he received an e-mail from Messina with descriptions of three positions. Romanoff released an attachment of what he said was the e-mail from Messina, which is dated Friday, September 11, 2009. The three positions listed in the e-mail are deputy assistant administrator for Latin America and Caribbean, U.S. Agency for International Development; director of the office of Democracy and Governance, USAID; and director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.

Romanoff said he left Messina a voice mail informing him "that I would not change course." He added, "I have not spoken with Mr. Messina, nor have I discussed this matter with anyone else in the White House, since then."

Five days later, Romanoff formally launched his Senate bid.

The White House said in a statement Thursday that Romanoff applied for a position at USAID during the presidential transition, applying online. After Obama took office, he followed up by phone with White House personnel, the statement said.

"Messina called and e-mailed Romanoff last September to see if he was still interested in a position at USAID or if, as had been reported, he was running for the U.S. Senate," the statement said. "Months earlier, the president had endorsed Sen. Michael Bennet for the Colorado seat and Messina wanted to determine if it was possible to avoid a costly battle between two supporters."

Romanoff told Messina he was committed to running for the Senate and was no longer interested in working for the Obama administration, "and that ended the discussion," the White House said. "As Mr. Romanoff has stated, there was no offer of a job."

The Denver Post first reported the story in September. At the time, the newspaper quoted unnamed sources as saying that Messina contacted Romanoff. In his statement Wednesday, Romanoff said he has declined comment until now "because I did not want -- and do not want -- to politicize this matter."

In an editorial Wednesday, the Post urged the White House to "clear the air on the Romanoff deal."

On Thursday, a key House Republican sent a letter to White House legal counsel Robert Bauer asking the administration to provide a "full and complete list of all elections in which the White House engaged in efforts to persuade specific candidates to drop election bids and if a job or any other thing of value meant to entice a candidate to withdraw from or not to enter the race was offered."

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the top Republican on House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, also requested a "written commitment to preserve all records and communications related to any attempts by the White House to clear the field in Democratic primary elections."

Bennet was plucked out of political obscurity last year when Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter named him to replace Sen. Ken Salazar, who stepped down to become interior secretary in the Obama administration.

To reach this year's general election, Bennet first needs to defeat Romanoff in Colorado's August 10 Democratic primary. Bennet has the backing of the White House and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He also has outpaced Romanoff when it comes to fundraising, thanks in part to an appearance by President Barack Obama at a Bennet fundraiser in Colorado in February.

But Romanoff topped Bennett at party precinct caucuses this year, which gave him a bit of a boost.

In addition, House Republicans demanded the White House turn over internal documents related to its failed effort last year to try and persuade Rep. Joe Sestak to forgo a primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania, in exchange for a government job.

Sestak ended up defeating Specter in Pennsylvania's May 18 primary.

Last Friday, Bauer released a memorandum revealing that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had enlisted the help of former President Bill Clinton to offer Sestak an unpaid position on a presidential advisory board. But Bauer concluded there was no wrongdoing by the White House, saying that "allegations of improper conduct rest on factual errors and lack a basis in the law."

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, told CNN on Thursday that situations such as the one that developed between Romanoff and the White House are not uncommon.

"I think it may look a little unseemly, because we are seeing how the sausage is made behind the closed doors [and in] the backrooms," Sloan said. "What do people really think happens with all these political appointments? The truth is, Washington is not totally a meritocracy. It is not the best qualified person that gets the job. It is often these [jobs] are awards to favorite politicos."

What is unusual about this incident, Sloan said, "is that we are learning about it. I suspect this happens all the time."

CNN's Ed Henry and Dana Bash contributed to this report.