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In Georgia’s closely watched congressional special election, the surprisingly strong Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, has touted his policy experience in national security -- and taken heat for allegedly embellishing it.
Ossoff is running to succeed Republican Tom Price in the U.S. House, after Price’s confirmation as secretary of Health and Human Services under President Donald Trump.
Historically, Price’s affluent, suburban Atlanta district has been solidly Republican. However, Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the district by only 1.5 percentage points in 2016 -- well below the usual Republican performance -- giving Democrats hope that Ossoff could win the April 18 special election.
Polls show Ossoff leading the multi-party field, with Republican candidates splitting the rest of the vote. If he can get to 50 percent, Ossoff could win the seat outright without having to compete in a runoff. That possibility has prompted Democrats from across the country to flood his war chest with donations.
The question of Ossoff’s national security background first came up in the news release announcing his campaign on Jan. 5. "A Georgia native who grew up in the Sixth District, Ossoff served Georgia as a national security staffer in Congress for five years before leaving government for the private sector," the release reads.
However, opponents raised questions about his experience, noting that Ossoff had worked on Capitol Hill between 2007 and 2012 but had only earned his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University in 2009. That would make him a pretty junior staffer to be touting his national security experience.
We decided to take a closer look.
After the criticism emerged, Ossoff’s campaign released a timeline of his years on Capitol Hill. Here it is:
• January 2007: Starts working for Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., as a part-time legislative correspondent, working 25-30 hours a week while attending Georgetown's School of Foreign Service.
• May 2009: Graduates from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service.
• Summer 2009: Spends the summer traveling before he returns to work as a legislative assistant for Johnson in August 2009.
• January 2010: Promoted to senior legislative assistant.
• April-July 2010: Runs Johnson's re-election campaign.
• September 2010: Returns to Johnson's Capitol Hill office.
• March 2012: Receives a top-secret security clearance and staffs Johnson for all work related to the annual National Defense Authorization Act.
• Mid August 2012: Leaves Johnson's office.
This timeline, which appears to match the congressional staff records we were able to find, confirms that Ossoff did indeed work as a congressional staffer for five years.
Why this raises legitimate questions
However, it’s important to keep in mind some important context about Ossoff’s first two years on Johnson’s staff. During those two years, Ossoff was working with the office only on a part-time basis and hadn’t received his undergraduate degree yet.
Moreover, his title -- legislative correspondent -- is not exactly a lofty one. Here’s how the Congressional Management Foundation describes it: "Researches and writes legislative correspondence; conducts legislative research; assists legislative assistants as needed."
In other words, the primary job of a legislative correspondent is to answer mail from the lawmaker’s constituents and to backfill for more senior office staffers when necessary.
In 2009, one of the years Ossoff held the position, the median salary for a legislative correspondent was $38,875, more than the $37,504 for a staff assistant and well below the next rung up on the ladder -- legislative assistant at $50,500, according to the Congressional Research Service.
And what do staff assistants do? According to the Congressional Management Foundation, a staff assistant "handles word processing, filing, faxing; responds to general constituent requests; processes tour and flag requests; staffs the front reception area, greets visitors and answers telephones."
In other words, a typical legislative correspondent is getting just $1,300 a year more than the (usually equally junior) staffer manning the reception desk.
Why Ossoff’s situation may have been different
Ossoff’s former supervisors, however, maintain that Ossoff had substantially more responsibility than a typical legislative correspondent.
Daraka Satcher, Johnson’s chief of staff from 2007 to 2009, told PolitiFact that the congressman was newly elected to the House and "was focused more on domestic issues than national security."
Meanwhile, Satcher and Johnson recognized that Ossoff, with his foreign-service school background, was precocious.
"Putting just any college student in that situation would be malpractice, but honestly, Jon was not a typical college student," Satcher said. "He handled the issues, so we felt very comfortable" with the unusual arrangement.
Satcher said that he himself had some experience on national security issues from his previous work on Capitol Hill, so he was able to backstop Ossoff when needed.
Johnson, the congressman, backed up Satcher’s description.
"I had no military assets in my district and was not a military guy," Johnson told PolitiFact, "Jon’s level of information on the issue was much deeper than mine at that time. While he was a legislative correspondent, he was learning how to be a legislative assistant."
Johnson’s office added that Ossoff played a key role in the House’s June 18, 2007, passage of H.Con.Res.80, a non-binding resolution about the civil war in northern Uganda. That occurred just a few months after Ossoff joined the office.
Johnson said that Ossoff also handled some more mundane duties in the office, such as some information technology assignments. Still, he added, "to say that Jon staffed me on national security, that’s entirely, 100 percent correct."
Is this version of events credible?
Of course, in addition to being Democrats, both Johnson and Satcher have an incentive to see their former staffer win a seat in Congress. So we tried to determine independently whether the scenario they describe is plausible.
We reached out to half a dozen staffers who we determined had worked for House co-sponsors of the Uganda resolution, but we did not hear back from anyone who was able to comment either way.
We did, however, run everything we had learned past the staff at LegiStorm, a company founded by Jock Friedly, a former investigative and congressional reporter. The company, which is nonpartisan, collects and analyzes data about Congress. They are perhaps best known for collecting publicly available salary information about Capitol Hill staffers.
Friedly and a researcher on his staff, Keturah Hetrick, pored over the available information for PolitiFact and concluded that there was nothing to contradict Ossoff’s version of events. They said that "it’s not a stretch" for Ossoff to have handled substantive foreign-policy issues despite his low-level position.
"Legislative correspondents are rarely going to be the primary staffer handling a given legislative issue, but they will also handle some policy work," Hetrick said.
What Johnson and Satcher said "sounds totally plausible," she said. At the same time, she added, official documentation is silent on whether Ossoff was officially Johnson’s primary foreign affairs staffer between 2007 and 2009.
Norman Ornstein, a longtime Congress-watcher at the American Enterprise Institute, said Ossoff’s statement amounts to "resume inflation," though, in his opinion, a "rather benign" example.
"Legislative correspondent is a junior staff position, but it at least requires that the staffer know enough about his boss's policy positions that he can write letters, both to constituents and executive agencies, that are accurate and in some cases nuanced," he said.
A better phrasing, Ornstein said, would have been that he spent "five years as a staffer in the U.S. Congress, including work on national security."
Ossoff said, "I've got five years of experience as a national security staffer in the U.S. Congress."
This description certainly applies to his final three years on Capitol Hill, which were spent in middle- to senior-level foreign policy posts. Whether it applies to his first two years working for the lawmaker is less clear cut.
His former supervisors insist that due to unusual circumstances within the office, Ossoff handled foreign-policy duties above his pay grade during that time. An independent expert told us that the explanation is plausible.
That said, Ossoff at the time was an undergraduate student holding a part-time position that, in the Capitol Hill pecking order, was entry-level. That adds relevant context, and he left it out.
We rate the statement Half True.
Jon Ossoff, news release announcing campaign, Jan. 5, 2017
Better Georgia Podcast, excerpt from interview with Jon Ossoff, March 6, 2017
Jon Ossoff, excerpt from a video of a campaign appearance, Feb. 20, 2017
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Plant Vogtle and the Westinghouse meltdown hit Donald Trump’s radar," March 28, 2017
Congressional Management Foundation, "Job Descriptions: House Office Sample," accessed March 30, 2017
Congressional Research Service, "Staff Pay Levels for Selected Positions in House Member Offices, 2009-2013," Nov. 3, 2014
Chief Administrative Office of the U.S. House of Representatives, "2010 House Compensation Study," accessed March 30, 2017
Congress.gov, main summary page for H.Con.Res.80
Email interview with Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, March 30, 2017
Interview with Keturah Hetrick, congressional researcher with LegiStorm, March 30, 2017
Interview with Keenan Pontoni, spokesman for Jon Ossoff, March 30, 2017
Interview with Daraka Satcher, former chief of staff to Rep. Hank Johnson, March 30, 2017
Interview with Rep. Hank Johnson, March 30, 2017
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