Rep. Marie Newman Claims She Did Nothing Wrong Amid Ethics Probe. Her Former Allies Aren't So Sure

Rep. Marie Newman swears she didn’t offer a job to her political rival in order to keep him from running against her, as a complaint made by a right-wing group alleges. But several local political sources and former allies have raised questions about how honest the Democratic freshman from Illinois has been with House investigators, who are looking into the allegation. Their recollections contradict key parts of Newman’s defense against the charges that she bought off a would-be contender in the 2020 Democratic primary with a quid-pro-quo offer to join her staff.

The House Ethics Committee is investigating the accusation, because such an arrangement would violate both federal law and House rules. The basis of the inquiry is a lawsuit filed against Newman by Iymen Chehade, a Palestinian-American history professor, who had signed a contract with Newman that promised she would hire him to be her chief foreign policy advisor if she won her 2020 campaign for Congress. In his filing, Chehade said his employment agreement with Newman had been intended “to induce Chehade not to run against her in the primary.” Chehade’s initial proposal to Newman, in an email turned up by ethics investigators, states the position would be “in exchange” for Chehade agreeing not to run.

The Office of Congressional Ethics released its initial report on the matter last week, recommending further review of Newman’s conduct and saying there is “substantial reason” to believe the allegation is true. “Rep. Newman likely was motivated to enter the agreement to avoid competing against Mr. Chehade in the next Democratic primary,” the report stated, adding that the review “does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred.”

Newman’s team insists the complaint was without merit. “This complaint, generated by a right-wing organization with a history of using this tactic against Democrats all over the country, is without merit, and we fully expect the Office of Congressional Ethics to find as much when they complete their review,” says Newman campaign manager Ben Hardin in a statement. “As sometimes happens, Mr. Chehade and Marie had a disagreement that led to a lawsuit in 2021. The two settled the lawsuit amicably last year and agreed to move forward together in a productive manner. Democrats should view this as exactly what it is — a tactic out of the right wing playbook to manufacture a scandal.”

In an email sent to campaign stakeholders last Wednesday and obtained by Rolling Stone, Newman said the complaint “has no basis in fact” and calls recent headlines on the subject “not just salacious, but completely wrong.” She described the complaint as the work of a “far-right dark money group” seeking “to damage a strong progressive” in a district Republicans hope to flip this cycle. “There was absolutely no wrongdoing and we have proven that,” she says.

The ethics complaint against Newman had been filed by the Foundation for Accountability and Trust, a right-wing group founded by Matthew Whittaker, who served as President Donald Trump’s former acting attorney general. A Republican operative described the group as “a chop shop of fake ethics complaints” to New York in 2018. But it’s not just right-wingers questioning Newman’s account. Her main contention is that she hired Chehade not to keep him out of the race, but because she needed his foreign policy expertise — particularly on Palestinian issues. It’s an assertion that multiple sources called inaccurate. “It strikes me as a complete fabrication that there weren’t Palestinian voices she consulted who are smart and educated on these issues,” says a source close to the Newman campaign.

Newman said she had sought out Chehade because he had “very specific knowledge around Palestine and Israel that I needed,” ​​she said in an interview with ethics investigators last fall. “We had looked for Palestinian advisors and we could never find one.” Newman had also told investigators that she never discussed Chehade’s interest or intentions to run in the Illinois 3rd primary — only a potential run for state senate or alderman instead. She disclosed to ethics investigators that Chehade had briefly mentioned flirting with a congressional campaign when the two first met in May 2018, but he’d wanted to help her build her Israel-Palestine platform, instead.

But when Newman began mapping out her 2020 run, she had expressed concern about Chehade entering the race, according to a former Newman ally familiar with her thinking at the time. They recall her mentioning Chehade in the context of running, not as an advisor. “Marie never mentioned she’d asked Chehade to be an advisor,” the source said. Sources also suggest Newman overstates the necessity of bringing in Chehade to advise on Israel-Palestine issues, claiming she was already well-connected with experts and community leaders on both sides of the conflict. (The sources spoke with Rolling Stone on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive political topics without fear of personal retribution.)

According to Newman’s own interview with ethics investigators, Newman’s relationship with Chehade began in May 2018. They signed the legal contract promising future employment in December 2018, which Newman told investigators was standard operating procedure for the start-up world that Newman, a former marketing executive, had come from. But her relationship with Chehade deteriorated in January 2019, just a month later, and Chehade stopped advising her campaign. When Newman won in November 2020, she didn’t hire Chehade, so he sued her for breach of contract in January 2021. A Newman spokesperson had told CQ Roll Call in May 2021 that Chehade’s lawsuit had been “nothing more than a desperate grab for money.”

Two days after it was settled, Newman’s campaign began making payments to Chehade in amounts ranging from $2,000 to $7,500, according to available FEC reports. Both Chehade and Newman’s campaign told the Chicago Sun-Times last month Chehade is employed by Newman’s campaign as a Director of Foreign Policy and Research. In the third quarter of 2021, Chehade earned more than double what Newman’s other campaign employees were paid over the same time period. “​​Mr. Chehade, an advisor to our campaign on foreign policy matters, is an important member of our team,” Hardin, Newman’s campaign manager, says.

Chehade is now also running for Congress in the newly drawn Illinois 3rd congressional district, which Newman is vacating to run in the 6th. (A request for comment made to Chehade’s campaign was not returned.)

The ethics complaint follows a 2020 primary that drew national attention for pitting a progressive against one of the last anti-abortion Democrats left standing in federal office. Newman challenged former Rep. Dan Lipinski on a platform that embraced Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage at a time when mainstream Democrats shied away from both. She earned an endorsement from Justice Democrats, the political group that supported Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) in their primary victories the cycle before. Newman had nearly defeated Lipinski in 2018, coming within just two points of the eight-term incumbent.

In the aftermath of that 2018 loss, Newman wasted no time laying the groundwork for her next campaign. By August of that year, she had already sought counsel from prominent Illinois Democrats such as Rep. Jan Schakowsky, former Illinois state house speaker Mike Madigan, and the campaign of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, according to a campaign document shared with Rolling Stone. But this time around, Newman wasn’t alone in her interest in knocking off Lipinski, thanks in part to her own success in highlighting his vulnerability. And she was worried about other would-be Lipinski challengers — including Chehade, who, according to a former Newman associate, had been quietly meeting with donors in Chicago’s southwest suburbs about a potential run. “She was worried Chehade was going to run,” the source recalls, noting Newman had raised concerns to them about several other potential candidates, as well.

“​​There’s no doubt, at the time, she was losing her mind about someone coming into the race and losing votes from her,” Rush Darwish, a local Palestinian activist who lost to Newman in the 2020 primary, says of Newman’s general worries about additional competitors. “Turns out, she underestimated her own strength.” (Newman would defeat Lipinski in 2020 by less than three points.)

Newman had also worried about shoring up her messaging on Israel-Palestine issues. The district contains a sizable Jewish population is home to one of the largest Palestinian settlements in the United States, though neither group dominates the electorate. Newman had struggled to court both groups during her 2018 run — in particular, with whether or not she supported the Palestinian-led boycott, divestments, and sanctions movement. She changed her policy position several times throughout the campaign, leading both factions to question where Newman actually stood, according to several sources close to Newman’s efforts.

Newman said as much to ethics investigators last fall. “In my 2018 race, one of the failures that I had personally that I’m accountable for is that I did not understand the Palestine-Israel issue very well,” she said. But the error in strategy had nothing to do with available expertise, former confidantes say. Newman had regularly engaged with local Palestinian community leaders and kept several in her campaign’s inner circle. She had a “kitchen cabinet” of foreign policy advisors she consulted on the Israel-Palestine conflict during her campaigns that included Palestinian expertise. She didn’t need another advisor like Chehade, these sources say.

Illinois’ redistricting process has carved up Chicago and its surrounding suburbs in a way that pits former political allies against one another. Roughly 40 percent of Newman’s current district, which covers Chicago’s southwest side and its suburbs, has been lumped into the redrawn 6th district. Newman will face a primary this June against Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.), the 6th’s current representative, in a redrawn district that leans less blue than the one she currently represents. Casten is a member of the New Democrat Coalition, a centrist pro-business caucus, while Newman has been more wholly embraced by her party’s left flank. She has been endorsed by a slate of progressive groups that have built their brand on rejecting the sort of quid pro quo of which Newman has been accused.

None of those groups have pulled their endorsement. Invisible, Democracy for America, EMILY’s List, the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, and Everytown for Gun Safety all affirmed their support of Newman to Rolling Stone on Tuesday. “We have zero intention of withdrawing support from her,” says Yvette Simpson, the president of Democracy for America, a progressive advocacy group. Simpson adds she believes the complaint against Newman lacks credibility and that the House Ethics committee will dismiss it, adding, “we appreciate her taking down one of the biggest Democratic villains in the country.”

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