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State Rep. Steve Brown involved in federal probe of Sen. Jeff Smith, sources say

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 17, 2009 - The federal probe that has apparently ensnared state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, also involves another area legislator, state Rep. Steve Brown, D-Clayton.

A lawyer, Brown is a close ally of Smith and was a key player in Smith's unsuccessful 2004 bid for Congress.

Brown has not returned calls seeking comment. Smith also has not returned calls, but has talked to other political activists and office-holders in recent days about his predicament -- and he names Brown, sources say.

At the time of Smith's 2004 campaign, Brown served as assistant attorney general under then-Attorney General Jay Nixon. Brown worked in Nixon's St. Louis office.

Both Brown and Smith are graduates of Horton Watkins High School in Ladue.  Brown did not hold an official post in Smith's congressional campaign, although Brown is among those Smith allies (and independent observers, including this reporter) featured in the documentary, "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?"

In 2006, Brown served as campaign treasurer for Smith's state Senate contest -- but that's not part of the federal probe.

Sources tell the Beacon that federal investigators turned their attention to Brown because of his contacts during Smith's 2004 congressional campaign with Milton Ohlsen III, a sometime political operative who recently pleaded guilty in federal court on unrelated fraud and firearms charges.

Ohlsen oversaw the independent operation, called Voters for Truth, that the FEC determined was responsible for sending out thousands of postcards to residents in the 3rd congressional district that disparaged a rival candidate, then-state Rep. Russ Carnahan, who ended up edging out Smith in the crowded Democratic primary. Carnahan now holds the congressional seat.

Carnahan filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging collusion between Ohlsen's independent group and the campaigns of Smith and another candidate, former state Rep. Joan Barry.

Brown's name appears only once in the public portions of the final reports by the FEC documents laying out its investigation and findings, which lasted several years. Parts of the documents are blacked out.

Brown is referred to in a footnote that states: "Ohlsen also claimed that an individual named Steve Brown was responsible for soliciting funds'' on behalf of Ohlsen's entity, Voters for Truth.

But there is no verification of Ohlsen's assertion. Brown also held no official post in Smith's 2004 congressional campaign, so his involvement with Ohlesen would not be enough in itself to prove a direct tie with the Smith campaign.

Meanwhile, Smith is expected to make public as soon as Tuesday whether he is resigning from his state Senate. His resignation had been expected late last week, as news of his legal problems spread through the state Capitol. Gov. Jay Nixon's office reports that it has not received any resignation yet. 

Already, the names of a number of Democrats are emerging as possible replacements to Smith.

They include:

  • state Rep. T.D. El-Amin
  • state Rep. Jamilah Nasheed
  • state Rep. Rachel Storch
  • former state Rep. Fred Kratky
  • 28th Ward committeeman Joe Keaveny

A special election would be called by the governor.
Smith was still acting in his state senator role late Monday, issuing a release in which he announced that Nixon will attend Tuesday's funeral for former NAACP chief Margaret Bush Wilson.

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.