Watchdog finds ‘substantial’ evidence Illinois Democrat promised job to potential challenger

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent watchdog, said it found “substantial reason to believe” that Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) offered a government job to a potential primary opponent so he wouldn’t run against her in 2020.

The OCE’s report was made public Monday after the watchdog referred its findings late last year to the House Ethics Committee, which said Monday that it is extending its review of the allegations. 

The OCE report cites a contract that Newman and Iymen Hamman Chehade signed on Dec. 26, 2018, which stipulated that she would hire him as a chief foreign policy adviser and either district director or legislative director starting in January 2021 if she were elected to the House. The contract further specified that Chehade would earn an annual salary between $135,000 and $140,000 per year.

Newman went on to successfully defeat now-former Rep. Dan Lipinski in the 2020 Democratic primary and subsequently won the general election.

Chehade, a professor at Columbia College Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, filed a lawsuit last year accusing Newman of a breach of contract after he ultimately was not hired for the role in her congressional office. Chehade and Newman eventually settled the case, and he now works as director of foreign policy and research for Newman’s campaign. 

At the same time, Chehade has also launched a campaign for Illinois’s 3rd Congressional District.

Newman, meanwhile, is running in the newly drawn 6th Congressional District against Rep. Sean Casten (D). 

Newman’s legal counsel argued the OCE “downplays the legitimate reasons” why Newman entered an agreement with a potential staffer before officially deciding to run for Congress in 2019, citing Chehade’s expertise in foreign policy. 

“OCE fails to mention that Representative Newman came from a business background in startups, where it was common to seek employees for positions that did not yet exist, with organizations that did not yet exist and may not exist for even two years,” Newman’s counsel, Brian Svoboda, wrote in a response to the House Ethics Committee. 

Newman’s counsel further stated that Chehade told Newman in May 2018 that “while he had thought about running, he wanted to help her instead, which made her understand that he would not become a candidate for Congress.”

But the OCE argued that Newman “likely was motivated to enter the agreement to avoid competing against Mr. Chehade in the next Democratic primary.” 

It cited an Oct. 27, 2018, email from Chehade to Newman that summarized an in-person meeting a few days prior and included a “proposal” that stated: “Chehade agrees not to announce or submit his candidacy for election to Congressional Representative of the 3rd District of Illinois. In exchange, Newman will hire Chehade as her Chief Foreign Policy Advisor.” 

When the OCE asked Newman about that email, she responded that she was “outraged and incensed” about the language concerning Chehade’s potential candidacy and called him to discuss.

Yet in another email dated Nov. 2, 2018, Newman responded to Chehade’s original proposal email by saying “most of it looks good” and added she had a “couple of concerns — mostly phraseology.”

Newman’s legal counsel argued that the OCE’s probe was “spurred by the charges of an adverse third party, and prodded by an ideologically hostile group.” 

It also emphasized that the official contract signed by Newman and Chehade “made no mention of any candidacy and instead contained language that eliminated the possibility of any exchange of employment for political support.”

“Recently, a right-wing organization filed a politically-motivated complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) regarding a dismissed lawsuit. The materials produced during the OCE’s review overwhelmingly demonstrate that the ethics complaint is completely meritless,” Newman spokesperson Pat Mullane said in a statement.

The OCE investigates allegations of wrongdoing by House members and refers them to the House Ethics Committee for further review. The House Ethics Committee can then launch a formal investigation and issue penalties if it believes they are warranted.

Updated at 5:27 p.m.

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