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Smith, Jetton to hold book signing that highlights the lessons they learned from troubled pasts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 2, 2013: More than two years after former state Sen. Jeff Smith finished his prison sentence for a campaign-finance violation that went very wrong, the episode continues to define his approach to life and work.

And a similar observation (without the prison) could be applied to former Missouri House Speaker Rod Jetton, who faced an assault charge as a result of a 2009 sexual encounter with a woman that gave new meaning to the phrase “green balloons.”

Both men will be in the limelight next week at a local book-signing for their joint venture in a book aptly entitled, “The Recovering Politician’s Twelve Step Program to Survive Crisis.”

The event is at 7 p.m., Wed., Aug. 7 at Pi, 6144 Delmar Blvd.

Smith, a Democrat, and Jetton, a Republican, are among more than a dozen politicians who each wrote a chapter for the book, which editor and co-author Jonathan Miller says has “cracked the top 10 lists for political and business titles at Amazon.” 

The book also has attracted progressives’ attention on such news outlets as “Hardball with Chris Matthews’’ on MSNBC.

Smith, a former Missouri state senator (and now a professor at the New School in New York) says the aim of the book is to help others – in and out of politics – “face adversity with courage, humility, grit, and even, when warranted, humor.”

His chapter, “Tell the Truth: Don’t Even Go Near the Line,’’ warns other would-be politicians to guard against letting their ambition get in the way of common sense.

Smith recounts his troubles, details prison experience

Among many St. Louisans, Smith’s case is well known. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2004, narrowly losing to then-state Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis and a member of one of Missouri’s most prominent Democratic families.

But shortly before the election, Carnahan filed an FEC complaint against Smith and another rival, Joan Barry, claiming they had improperly and secretly circulated an anonymous postcard that cited Carnahan’s frequent absences and missed votes in the state House.

Smith signed a federal affidavit disavowing any knowledge of who was behind the postcards. In fact, he did know. It was Skip Ohlsen, a Democratic activist who had offered to help the cash-strapped campaign.

Smith admits in his chapter that he gave his approval to aides who told him of Ohlsen’s offer. Smith’s close friend at the time, lawyer Steve Brown (who in 2008 won a seat in the state House) raised the money to bankroll Ohlsen’s activities.

By 2009, Smith was well into his first term as a state senator when federal authorities investigating Ohlsen for unrelated crimes found tapes of phone calls between Ohlsen and Brown relating to the congressional contest.

The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office persuaded Brown to wear a wire in his conversations with Smith about their 2004 attempt to distance themselves from Ohlsen.

Because of the recorded conversations, Smith wound up pleading guilty to lying to federal investigators. Brown and a former Smith aide pleaded guilty to lesser charges; Brown lost his law license.

Smith was sent to prison for almost a year. His chapter offers some new public details about his experience behind bars.

Brown challenges Smith's account

Meanwhile, Brown and Smith haven’t talked since the wiretap. But Brown has talked to the Beacon, after reading Smith’s chapter, which includes numerous references to Brown.

As he has previously, Brown takes issue with some of Smith’s account, which Brown says appears to portray Smith as less involved in Ohlsen’s improper activities than he was.

“He is shading and spinning things to make his role as benign as possible,’’ Brown said.

Brown also is upset by the chapter’s references to comments by Smith’s fellow prisoners, who offered to harm Brown because he wore a wire.

"If anything happens to me or my family, I'm not going to the police or newspapers, I'm going to Jeff Smith,'' Brown said angrily.

Smith says the prison comments weren’t serious and were made at least three years ago by prisoners who haven’t “any idea who he is, what his name is, or what he looks like, nor do they care. I am quite certain he has nothing to worry about, and I wish him the best.“

Said Brown of Smith: “He deserves a second chance, but he deserves to come clean."

Aside from his teaching post, Smith has gone on to become a writer, commentator and executive of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association. He also has gotten married; he and his wife, Teresa, are about to have their second child.

Brown also is married with two children. He is in IT sales, he said, as he studies to retake the Missouri Bar and -- he hopes -- regain his law license.

Despite their differences, Brown agrees with the chief thesis of Smith’s chapter that “you’ve got to come clean, you’ve got to tell the truth.”

Brown, by the way, bought an electronic copy of the book on Amazon.

Jetton blames 'lack of balance' of life

In his chapter, Jetton writes that he is proud of his two terms as House speaker, from 2005 to 2009. During that time, he says, he was able to steer through legislation that improved the state’s roads and helped disabled children, while also expanding gun rights and restricting abortion.

While still in office, he also became a political consultant. His clients included Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney during his 2008 bid for the White House.

But while his professional life prospered, his personal life went into a downward spiral.

“The biggest mistake I made was not having balance in my life,’’ Jetton wrote. "I worked too hard at politics and forgot about my family, friends, community… and sometimes, the whole reason I went to Jefferson City in the first place.”

Jetton hit the news – and his professional career took a hit – in late 2009. He was arrested for an alleged felony assault during a sexual encounter with a woman.He contended it was consensual; she claimed it got out of hand.

He also was the target in a federal grand jury investigation into alleged ethics violations while he was speaker.

He shut down his consulting firm and his marriage ended in divorce.

According to news accounts, in the assault case, Jetton ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge in 2011. But Jetton says in the book, “I was never convicted in the assault case and the grand jury suspended their investigation into the ethics allegation and never charged me with a crime.”

Jetton has remarried and has found employment.

Jetton gives credit for his comeback to his religious faith, his friends and “accepting responsibility for my mistakes, apologizing and changing my behavior.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.