Eric Semler wanted to throw his son a Bar Mitzvah bash that he would never forget -- capped by a fireworks show near the hedge fund investor's Southampton, N.Y., home -- but he needed Rep. Tim Bishop's help.
The fireworks company Semler hired hadn't received government permits needed to put on the display. So on May 21, with the party just five days away, Semler contacted the Democratic congressman and asked for his help.
Bishop agreed to intercede. But before Bishop and his aides completed their work on his behalf, Semler received a request from the congressman's campaign staff, according to documents obtained by POLITICO and multiple interviews: For a contribution of up to $10,000 to Bishop's reelection campaign.
"Our Finance Chair, Bob Sillerman suggested to my dad that you were interested in contribution to his campaign and that I should be in touch directly with you. We are going to be in a tough, expensive campaign and so we are very grateful for your willingness to be of help," the congressman's daughter and fundraiser, Molly Bishop, wrote to Semler in a May 23 email, three days before the party, when it was still unknown whether the permits would come through.
"If you make a contribution before June 26th you and your wife may each contribute up to $5,000; after June 26th the most you can each contribute is $2,500," she added.
Tim Bishop received $5,000 combined from Semler and his wife on June 26, the first time the couple had given to the five-term congressman.
The two men have conflicting accounts of who broached the donation: Bishop said Semler volunteered the money as a show of thanks, and his campaign was just following up; Semler said the congressman's staff solicited him.
But House ethics rules don't make that distinction: A member or his staff can't solicit or accept a campaign contribution tied to an official action.
In interviews, both men insisted they had done nothing wrong.
"I did my job. I was asked to fix a problem for a constituent that I did not create. I fixed it," Bishop said. "I never directly solicited him. We told him how he could help. And then a month later, he helped."
As for Semler, a few days after the party he complained in an email to employees of Grucci Firework that Bishop "didn't hesitate to solicit me in the heat of battle" and called the request, for up to $10,000, "really gross."
But in an email to Bishop after the party and again in an interview this week, Semler praised the congressman's efficient work to help secure the permits and said that nothing untoward occurred. Semler repeated, however, that it was Bishop's campaign staff that brought up the idea of a donation.
Bishop may have a problem in either case.
The House Ethics Manual states that "a solicitation for campaign or political contributions may not be linked with an official action taken or to be taken by a House Member or employee, and a Member may not accept any contribution that is linked with an action that the Member has taken or is being asked to take."
This prohibition includes campaign contributions offered to a lawmaker by a supporter, especially when a request for official action is pending or has occurred. "In a similar vein, a Member or employee may not accept any contribution that the donor links to any official action that the Member or employee has taken, or is being asked to take," the manual adds.
According to Bishop, Semler needed his assistance because Grucci Fireworks could not obtain the needed environmental permits in time for the fireworks display. The company's executive vice president and chief financial officer, Felix Grucci, is a former Republican House member whom Bishop defeated in 2002 to win the seat.
Semler's home is near ecologically sensitive wetlands, including nesting areas for Piping Plover birds, so a number of state, local and federal agencies had to sign off on the event. Semler and Grucci Fireworks originally proposed using a barge anchored offshore near his home as a platform for the pyrotechnic display, which would include 2-inch rockets and other explosive devices.
But since that site is close to plover nests, environmental officials raised objections.
So, first through an intermediary who had a relationship with the congressman and then personally, Semler contacted Bishop for help. Bishop and his aides then lobbied the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and local Southampton officials on Semler's behalf, Bishop said.
Bishop said Semler "exaggerated" in a May 29 e-mail to Grucci employees -- the one in which the investor called the campaign solicitation "really gross" -- because Semler wanted a refund from the company. During the show, which ultimately was staged from the roof of Semler's home, debris from the fireworks landed on a neighbor's Bentley. Semler said he had to pay the neighbor $7,500 for repairs.
"He was piling on with the Grucci people, telling them how much aggravation and consternation they had caused him. He had to reimburse a neighbor," Bishop said of Semler and his complaint about a campaign solicitation.
"I'm not saying he was lying. I am saying he exaggerated, if you will, the consternation and aggravation that he was put through as a result of the what he viewed -- and I am not sharing this necessarily -- as the incompetence of the company he was dealing with."
Bishop added: "When we get a medal for a veteran and two months later he sends me $10, is that coerced, is that a quid pro quo? When we fast-track a passport request, and when people get back from Europe and send me $100 in gratitude, is that coercion? No."
Semler initially declined multiple requests to be interviewed. But hours after Bishop acknowledged to POLITICO in a second interview that he had spoken with Semler that day, the investor agreed to talk.
Pointing out that he is a former New York Times reporter, Semler said what transpired is a nonstory. He bashed Grucci Fireworks, not Bishop.
"Tim never said anything to me about a donation. I didn't know he was running for reelection," Semler said of Bishop. "After the fact, after I got the permit, I did receive a request for a donation. He didn't tell me, one of his campaign people told me, that he was in a hot race and needed a lot of support. I would love to support a guy like that."
"There was never a discussion of a contribution while he was trying to help me," Semler added. "He never asked me for money. It was someone with his campaign."
In fact, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist did not approve the fireworks show until May 25, two days after Molly Bishop had already contacted Semler about how to contribute to her father's campaign.
Semler said Grucci Fireworks did not refund him any of the cost of the display, despite the car damage. He said his complaint about a Bishop fundraising solicitation was his attempt "to recite the expenses that I've incurred. I didn't say that I had paid a donation, I said I was expecting to make a donation."
Semler said his complaint to the Gruccis about Bishop came "after he [Bishop] did the work for us."
Grucci Fireworks executives did not return repeated calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Bishop, who represents a swing district in Long Island, faces Republican Randy Altschuler in November in what is expected to be a close race. Bishop beat Altschuler two years ago by a razor-thin margin of 593 votes.
Altschuler has tried to make an issue of Molly Bishop's serving as a fundraiser for her father's campaign. Her consulting firm has been paid $430,000 in consulting fees since 2006, Federal Election Commission records show. Molly Bishop served as a campaign aide in the two cycles before that.
Tim Bishop has vehemently defended his daughter's work on his behalf, and Molly Bishop called Altschuler "anti-woman" for his attacks on her work.