Secret Obama Fax Was Ethics Slip

Sen. Barack Obama vows to bring a "new kind of politics" to Washington. But a copy of a 36-page fax from Obama's Senate office, obtained by NEWSWEEK, shows that the rookie presidential candidate, riding the biggest wave this side of his native Hawaii, needs to keep a sharp eye on the details of his own campaign. Senate ethics rules allow senators with active campaigns to "split" the work time and salary of official schedulers such as Obama's Molly Buford. According to Obama's campaign spokesman, Robert Gibbs, she in fact is paid by both entities. But Senate rules and federal law forbid the use of official equipment—such as faxes and phone lines—to conduct campaign business, which was what Buford was doing last Thursday when she faxed Obama's political "call list" to the senator's personal aide at a Columbia, S.C., hotel. "These are the call sheets for tomorrow's call time," she wrote on the official cover page, emblazoned with the seal of the U.S. Senate.

The transmission was an isolated mistake, Gibbs told NEWSWEEK. "It should not have happened, and we will make sure that it will not happen again." (The campaign made another misstep a few weeks ago, allowing political guru David Axelrod to be photographed chatting with Obama in the Senate office.) The fax itself shows the campaign working to round up endorsements from established party leaders. In the "talking points" for a call to Rep. William Clay of St. Louis, Obama is advised by his Chicago political team to say: "Your endorsement is important to me and I hope that you will join the movement supporting my campaign. I would like you to take an official leadership role for my campaign in Missouri." But the memo cautions Obama. "Avoid discussing specific titles," it says. "Staff will work this out later. YOU can assure him he will be one of the main leaders in Missouri for your campaign." The guidance for Rep. Russ Carnahan of Missouri was similar. "Carnahan is just waiting for an official ask from you to endorse publicly," the staff advises. "Assure him he will be one of YOUR leaders in the state, but DO NOT lead him to believe that he will be in an exclusive role."

At the Columbia Marriott, which served informally as hotel headquarters for last week's Democratic debate, aides from several campaigns may well have had access to incoming faxes. A copy of the one to Obama was slipped, anonymously, under the door of a NEWSWEEK reporter. But the sender clearly knew the ethics rules. The accompanying note, written on hotel stationery, said of the fax: "Unbelievable, USS, office, phone, long distance, staff, etc.—for political." With all eyes on Obama, he needs to watch out.

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