The rift between U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen and Randy Wade, the congressman's former district director, had been relatively quiet until it was reported in a story last week in The New Tri-State Defender that the congressman had filed an ethics complaint against Wade for using his congressional title to endorse a Tennessee state representative in his re-election bid.
The congressman did not file an ethics complaint, said Marilyn Dillihay, the congressman's chief of staff. In fact, Dillihay wants to set the record straight that she communicated with the House Committee on Ethics when she learned of Wade's endorsement of State Rep. G. A. Hardaway.
"I'm responsible for the ethics of this office," said Dillihay, noting that she drafted a letter to the ethics committee regarding a possible ethics violation on Wade's part and that the congressman only affixed his signature to it.
"If Steve didn't report on what Randy was doing, it would have been an ethics violation against the congressman. He has to report on activities in his office. So it had to be reported."
It was not a complaint as it had been reported in the media, she said.
When it was explained to Wade that Dillihay took the matter in her hands and apprised the ethics committee on what had transpired, Wade said, "That's apples and oranges. Marilyn isn't going to file a complaint against anyone unless Steve Cohen orchestrates it. She's trying to take the heat off Steve Cohen."
Dillihay made it unequivocally clear that it is her job to make sure that impropriety does not occur in the congressional office, that employees are not "tripped up," and that they are safe. All staffers, she said, have to take ethics training annually.
She said Cohen held a staff meeting prior to the infraction and reminded employees of what they could and could not do during an election. Wade, she said, mentioned he was supporting Hardaway as a private citizen over Mike Kernell, Cohen's choice for House District 93 in the Aug. 2, 2012, Democratic Primary.
"I told him as a private citizen that I can do what I wanted to do," Wade said.
It was public knowledge that Cohen was supporting Kernell for the House seat. Dillihay said the congressman explained to Wade that he could not use his official title if he were indeed going to endorse Hardaway.
"We saw the Hardaway campaign mailer with Randy's endorsement using his official title. That was a clear ethics violation," Dillihay said.
Wade pointed out that he did not do anything wrong to warrant such a violation. He did acknowledge endorsing Hardaway, but stressed that he did not have control over what Hardaway printed in his campaign mailer.
"I told G.A. I was going to endorse him as a private citizen and that he could not use my title. I couldn't control what he printed," Wade said.
If Wade indeed had no control over Hardaway's use of his flattering remarks and congressional title on his campaign mailer, Dillihay said he should have reported the matter himself to the ethics committee to apprise them that he did not give his consent to use his congressional title.
"I gave him my advice to call the ethics committee," Dillihay said. "He could have weighed in with the ethics committee, saying, 'Here is my side of the story.' Our titles are the property of Congress. We are not supposed to use our titles for political campaigns."
Meanwhile, two political operatives lambasted Hardaway, claiming he never sought their endorsement before using their names on the mailer. The mailer likewise drew the ire of the congressman, who was taken aback when he saw Wade's official title printed on the mailer.
After discovering the mailer, Dillihay said she called the ethics committee. "I asked for their advice. They told me the congressman needed to self-report. I composed a letter for the congressman to sign. Then I hand-delivered it to the ethics committee. He never talked to the ethics committee."
The letter was dated July 31, 2012, informing the ethics committee about Wade's endorsement of Hardaway, his remarks on the mailer and the use of his title. Wade said the letter, which he possesses, was sent to the ethics committee by Cohen and signed by him, not Dillihay.
Wade pointed to the last paragraph of the letter as verification that Cohen, not Dillihay, sent the letter to the ethics committee. It reads in part: "Early today my Chief of Staff consulted with the Ethics staff about the situation; however, I feel it is appropriate that I personally inform you of this situation which I learned of today."
Disputing Dillihay's assertion that she was the one who sent the letter to the ethics committee, Wade said, "It was both of them. She's trying to take the heat off Cohen. She consulted them (ethics committee), but he filed it. He personally filed it because he's a member of the House."
"I complied with what the ethics committee told me to do," said Dillihay, adding that Cohen had to be in compliance with his duties as congressman.
"That complaint was filed in July (2012) while I was still working and campaigning for Cohen, telling people to 'Keep Goin' with Cohen,'" said Wade, who resigned from his position on Feb. 11, 2013.
Wade received a letter from the ethics committee dated July 1, 2013, more than a year after it was filed. He said he wasn't aware he was being investigated, but noted that the ethics "complaint" had nothing to do with him taking an early retirement.
"Marilyn and Steve know why I took the early retirement," he said.
Dillihay said Wade left on his own volition not knowing about the letter and pointed out that the ethics committee wasn't going to take any action against Wade. She also said the committee wasn't going to make any public statements either.
It was Wade's decision to go public, she said, adding, "This was 100 percent confidential. No one knew about this for a whole year but Congressman Cohen, the ethics committee, and me."
Wade said he didn't do anything wrong and held a news conference on July 30, 2013 to express his dissatisfaction with Cohen. He made it known that he had been the congressman's friend.
Dillihay said she only wanted to get the facts out and not reignite tensions between the former friends. Otherwise, she wouldn't have addressed the issue.
"I only deal with facts," she said. "I got a load of facts at my fingertips."
Since Wade is no longer a congressional employee, the matter remains closed. However, if he should return, the matter could be resurrected and Wade could be censured or reprimanded, Dillihay said in her interpretation of the rules.
"That complaint is not worth the paper it's written on," said Wade. "It's a moot issue."