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Holden recalls 'Skip' Ohlsen, while Smith drops WashU gig

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 19, 2009 - State Sen. Jeff Smith told Washington University just last Thursday that he would not be teaching a class this fall -- a move that may indicate that the St. Louis Democrat wasn't aware until recently of the gravity of his legal problems as a result of federal probe into campaign activities related to his unsuccessful 2004 bid for Congress.

Spokesmen for Gov. Jay Nixon said Wednesday that the office has received no Senate resignation from Smith. Sources say Smith has told allies that he may have to resign if he pleads guilty to alleged federal offenses.

The investigation also has ensnared state Rep. Steve Brown, D-Clayton, a Smith friend, sources say.

According to a statement Wednesday from Washington University:

"Missouri Sen. Jeffrey R. Smith last taught at Washington University in fall 2008 and was a part-time lecturer in political science. At that time, he taught a course called 'Topics in Politics: Campaigns and Elections.' He has not had an appointment with the University since then.

"This fall, he was preparing to teach "Topics in American Culture Studies: Contemporary Issues in St. Louis Politics, Culture, and Society," but he asked on Thurs., Aug. 13 to be relieved of those duties and the class was cancelled."

Smith, 35, had been a popular lecturer at the university for several years; that helped him build a network of young supporters who worked on his nearly successful bid for the U.S. House and his victory in 2006 for the state Senate.

But it was during his 2004 congressional bid when he and others close to him apparently got acquainted with Milton "Skip" Ohlsen, a sometime political operative who now faces serious prison time after pleading guilty this spring to unrelated federal offenses.

Ohlsen's name has been linked to various Democrats around the state. And former Gov. Bob Holden confirmed Wednesday that he was among them.

Holden said that Ohlsen, who the former governor referred to as "Skip," was "in and out briefly'' of Holden's political orbit. "A lot of people were on the fringes,'' and Ohlsen was one of them, Holden said, emphasizing that he did not know Ohlsen well.

Holden did not get specific as to what Ohlsen did for his campaigns. The former governor said that his campaign operation dealt with Ohlsen mainly during Holden's tenure as governor, from 2001-2005, but most notably in 2003-2004.

Those latter dates happen to cover the period when Ohlsen was attempting to get involved in the 3rd District congressional campaigns of some rivals of then state-Rep. Russ Carnahan, whom Ohlsen apparently opposed.

Carnahan won the crowded 2004 contest and is now the 3rd District's representative in the U.S. House.

Smith's legal troubles stem from a complaint that Carnahan's campaign filed with the Federal Election Commission, alleging collusion between the campaigns of rivals Smith and Joan Barry, and the circulation of thousands of anonymous postcards that disparaged Carnahan. The FEC determined that Ohlsen was the author.

The FEC determined that the Barry campaign was guilty of some of the accusations alleged by Carnahan. The commission said that the Barry campaign violated campaign law because the fliers given to reporters at a joint Barry-Smith news conference failed to display "the appropriate exclaimer;" the fliers contained many of the same accusations against Carnahan as those on the postcards.

However, investigators decided that the Barry violation was "minimal,'' according to the final general counsel report, and recommended that the commission not impose any penalties --indicating that Barry campaign's had apparently been open with the commission's federal investigators.

Smith and Brown are in legal trouble because they apparently were not as forthcoming, numerous legal and political sources say.

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.