Committee Will Extend Bishop Probe

House ethics report cited $5,000 contribution
Representative Tim Bishop, center, at a Democratic Party event on Sept. 7, is battling accusations stemming from a 2012 campaign contribution from a constituent he helped in obtaining permits for a bar mitzvah fireworks display. Morgan McGivern

    An Office of Congressional Ethics report has questioned the way in which Representative Tim Bishop sought a 2012 campaign contribution in connection with securing permits for a private fireworks show.

    In May, the office, an independent, nonpartisan agency, recommended the allegation be reviewed by the House Committee on Ethics. In a statement issued on Sept. 11, the committee said that it would continue its investigation based on the office’s report.

    Responding to the office’s inquiry in a July letter, Brian G. Svboda of Perkins Coie, a Washington law firm retained by Mr. Bishop, called the findings “deeply flawed” and said that they did not require further examination.

    The complaint stems from May 2012 when Eric Semler, a New York hedge fund manager who owns an oceanfront house in Sagaponack, ran into difficulties securing the proper permissions for a fireworks display to be held during his son’s bar mitzvah and turned to a friend, Robert F.X. Sillerman, for help.

    Mr. Sillerman, had been the chancellor of the now-defunct Southampton College when Mr. Bishop was its provost, though Mr. Bishop’s time there predated Mr. Sillerman’s by a decade. They remained close, however, and Mr. Sillerman served as a Bishop campaign finance chairman during the 2012 election. He put Mr. Semler and Mr. Bishop in touch via e-mail.

    When Mr. Semler’s efforts were brought to the congressman’s attention, according to the Office on Congressional Ethics report, Mr. Bishop, a Democrat, quickly went to work, calling on the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the State Department of Environmental Conservation, and a Southampton Town Trustee, among others, to smooth the way for Mr. Semler’s planned fireworks display, which was held up over concerns about nesting piping plovers.

    As the May 26 bar mitzvah rapidly neared, according to the ethics report, Mr. Bishop asked Mr. Sillerman to seek a campaign contribution of up to $10,000 from Mr. Semler and his wife, Tracy.

    In an e-mail to Mr. Sillerman included in the 27-page report and associated exhibits, Mr. Bishop wrote, “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.” June 26 represented the New York primary period cut-off date; individual donations of up to $2,500 can be made during both the primary and general election cycles.

    The ethics report says that it took Mr. Sillerman five minutes to send a request for $5,000 to the Semlers. Almost immediately, Mr. Semler responded, “Absolutely! How do we do it?”

    An exchange followed between Molly Bishop, Mr. Bishop’s daughter and his campaign’s finance director, and Mr. Semler, making arrangements for the contribution.

    Meanwhile, with Mr. Bishop sending messages to and working the phones with Fish and Wildlife and state officials, permission for the Fireworks by Grucci show was secured with a day to go, provided the launch site be set up on the Semlers’ roof and not at a nearby pond, as had been discussed earlier.

    Mr. Semler, by then a guest at the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel, made a $5,000 credit card donation through his company, TCS Capital Management, to the Bishop for Congress committee on July 9, according to the report. That donation may have exceeded the $2,500 individual maximum, the report said, noting that Mr. Bishop’s office had not been forthcoming with details about the donation or records that indicated a possible earlier contribution.

    Based on its investigation, the Office of Congressional Ethics wrote that there was “substantial reason to believe that Representative Bishop sought a campaign contribution because of or in connection with an official act in violation of House rules, standards of conduct, and federal law.”

    The United States Attorney’s Office has conducted its own probe. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation interviewed several people locally early this year.

    
Conflicting Statements

    A picture emerges from the Office of Congressional Ethics report of two sides to Mr. Semler’s role.

    Two days after the May 26 fireworks show, Mr. Semler wrote to Mr. Bishop thanking him for “going out of his way to help us.”

    “The fireworks were terrific,” Mr. Semler wrote, “and I can’t really believe we pulled it off. It never would have happened without you.”

    He went on, “You give me renewed hope that convoluted political bureaucracy can be surmounted. . . . Your relentless focus on the task was so impressive.”

    Mr. Semler’s feelings apparently began to sour shortly thereafter. Documents included in the Office on Congressional Ethics report indicate that he had a dispute with the Grucci company over its bill and other aspects of the display.

    In a June 1, 2012, e-mail, he objected that the show was only five minutes in length, instead of the 15 minutes he had contracted for. He also noted that Grucci had promised in writing that there would be no damage to his roof — which he said there was. And, worse, he wrote, fire and ash “permanently damaged my neighbor’s new Bentley, which they are asking me to replace.”

    He asked for a full refund “plus further damages.”

    In an earlier e-mail to the Grucci company, apparently also pressing for a refund, Mr. Semler wrote that the Bishop campaign’s solicitations were, “really gross — they didn’t hesitate to solicit me in the heat of battle.”

    Once the matter reached Poltico.com, which covers Washington politics, and questions began to be asked, Mr. Semler appeared to backtrack, writing in an Aug. 8, 2012, text message to Mr. Bishop included in the ethics report that the congressman had “never asked me for a donation while you were trying to help me.”

    In another text from Mr. Semler describing his interview with a Politico reporter, he wrote, “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.” The story first appeared online on Aug. 15, 2012.

    Mr. Bishop’s lawyer, Mr. Svoboda, wrote in his July response to the inquiry that Mr. Semler’s e-mails erroneously described a $10,000 donation he claimed to have made to the campaign.

    These messages, he wrote, were given to the campaign of Randy Altschuler, who was running against Mr. Bishop at the time, by the brother-in-law of Felix Grucci, whom Mr. Bishop had defeated in his first race for Congress in 2002. Someone from Mr. Altschuler’s campaign tipped off Politico, Mr. Svoboda wrote.

    In its report, the Office of Congressional Ethics made two recommendations: that the House committee look into whether Mr. Bishop sought the contributions in connection with an official act and whether he made sure that the ultimate, $5,000 donation was in compliance with federal rules.

    The committee’s leaders, Represenative K. Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican, and Represenative Linda T. Sanchez, a Democrat from California, said in the Sept. 11 statement that they would extend the committee’s review, making no further public comment until it was completed.

    In a statement issued Monday Mr. Bishop said that the allegations 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.”

Eric and Tracy Semler's oceanfront house on Fairfield Pond in Sagaponack, where a May 2012 fireworks show set off from the roof damaged a neighbor's Bentley and touched off a political firestorm.   Doug Kuntz