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Sen. Jeff Smith literally the talk of the town -- and the state Capitol

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 14, 2009 - Tony Messenger at Political Fix has more detail on the federal investigation that appears to have ensnared state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis.

And so do we. But first... As we first recounted earlier --

The political world in St. Louis and Jefferson City is abuzz today over state Sen. Jeff Smith's political future -- and what may or may not be happening to the St. Louis Democrat.

A deluge of reports from activists and officials in both parties, from Washington to City Hall, has Smith resigning for various alleged reasons. Such a departure would be a stunning end to a promising political career that spawned an award-winning documentary a few years ago about his unsuccessful 2004 bid for Congress.

But so far, much of the dire talk has turned out to be bogus.

Although Smith isn't returning calls, and his state office in the Capitol is dark, a spokeswoman for state Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields says that, as of 2:30 p.m., no resignation has been turned in. Because the Legislature is in recess, a resignation letter would first be turned in to Gov. Jay Nixon; so far, there is no such letter, a Nixon spokesman said.

Smith was spotted in the state Capitol earlier this week, igniting some talk about furniture and other items moved out of his office. However, Shields' staff says that activity was prompted by a water leak in the ceiling, caused by the Capitol's aging pipes.

Much of the more serious speculation swirls around a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission by now-U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan's campaign after the 2004 congressional election, which Smith narrowly lost. Carnahan's complaint had dealt with joint campaign activity by Smith and then-fellow candidate Joan Barry, a former state legislator from south St. Louis. The three were among 10 Democrats who sought the seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who earlier that year dropped his bid for the White House.

However, a spokeswoman with the FEC said today that the complaint had been resolved in 2007, with an official notice coming out a year ago. 

Missouri sources in both parties say, however, that a problem may have arisen over what Smith did or did not tell a federal investigator in connection with that case.

But a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office said this afternoon that there has been no indictment of "anyone by that name," referring to Smith.

UPDATE -- for those seeking more detail involving that FEC case:

The dispute before the FEC centered on disparaging campaign literature distributed by Barry and Smith at a joint press conference before the August 2004 Democratic primary, in which both questioned Carnahan's voting and attendance record while a state legislator. There also were some postcards making similar allegations that were sent to thousands of 3rd District residents.

Carnahan's campaign, in essence, accused the two rivals of failing to report their expenses for the fliers and postcards.

The FEC's investigative was exhaustive and lasted several years. Those interested in reading all the documents and reports can click here.

In essence, investigators determined that the postcards were linked to to Milton Ohlsen III, a sometime political operative and unsuccessful ultimate-fight promoter (the Riverfront Times did a generally critical story on him in January 2008.)

Ohlsen told investigators that his contacts had been people with ties to the Smith campaign. However, after interviewing the people named by Ohlsen, the FEC general counsel reported in late 2007 that investigators found Ohlsen "lacking in credibility when compared with evidence obtained from other witnesses and documents."

Ohlsen alleged that he had been paid $13,000 from someone with ties to Smith's campaign, but he provided investigators with no proof of those payments (which the Smith campaign denied, and which never appeared on any campaign reports.)

In any case, a key point of the FEC probe is that there are legal problems only if the anti-Carnahan postcards were tied to his rivals' campaigns, who didn't report any expenses related to them. An individual could send out the postcards, and violate no laws, because the material didn't call for the reader to vote FOR someone.

In the end, the Barry campaign was faulted the most by the FEC, (pertaining to the literature given to reporters at the news conference) but no fines or punishment were imposed. As for Smith, the findings issued in late 2007 concluded that there was "no reason to believe'' that his campaign had violated any campaign laws.

However, several sources had told the Beacon on Friday that Smith had reported that he had been questioned again about that 2004 case in recent months. Ohlsen, meanwhile, is in serious federal trouble on unrelated matters.


Any legal troubles for Smith stemming from that 2004 race would be ironic, since that contest also sparked his political career. When he launched his bid, Smith was an adjunct political science instructor and doctoral student who was little known off the Washington University campus. He had a strong following among students, who helped Smith build a huge grassroots operation that was particularly significant in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County. (Carnahan was outpolled by Smith in both areas, but won by snagging more votes in Jefferson and Ste. Genevieve counties.)

Smith's failed 2004 quest was chronicled in the documentary, "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" by Frank Popper, which ended up winning numerous film festival awards and was among the final dozen or so films in the running for an Academy Award a couple years ago. (Full disclosure: this reporter covered that 2004 contest and ended up in the movie.)

Smith won a bid for the state Senate in 2006, and since then has quickly become a major player among the Democratic minority. Last session, he received much of the credit for preserving the state's historic tax credit program that has helped spawned redevelopment in the city of St. Louis.

Just a few weeks ago, Smith held his 4th annual 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament at Fairgrounds Park. Hundreds attended the popular event.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.