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Legislators Smith, Brown resign, plead guilty to federal charges

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2009 - U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan offered Wednesday his first -- and he emphasized, his only -- comment to Tuesday's guilty pleas by two area legislators, state Sen. Jeff Smith and state Rep. Steve Brown, to federal charges stemming from the formal complaint that Carnahan filed five years ago with the Federal Election Commission.

During a news conference on an unrelated matter, the congressman, D-St. Louis, characterized the legal outcome as "two sides of a coin."

"On the one hand, it's a very sad ending to a promising career,'' Carnahan said, referring to Smith, who barely lost to Carnahan in the 2004 Democratic primary for the 3rd District congressional seat.

"On the other hand, the system worked,'' Carnahan said, adding that the prosecutions reaffirmed that there's "a reason for proper disclosures and accounting'' in political campaigns.

In response to questions, Carnahan said he was never interviewed by the FBI, and had limited contact with the FEC following his initial complaint. He called it a "very long and arduous process'' with "bizarre twists along the way."

Carnahan confirmed that Smith had brought up the matter after Carnahan had won the congressional election. Sources say Smith asked Carnahan to drop the complaint and that the then-new congressman declined.

Carnahan sidestepped the details of the discussion with Smith, but observed that once an FEC complaint is filed, it's his understanding that the agency "pursues it to a conclusion, regardless of what happens."

Without naming Smith or Brown, Carnahan said that "if the rules had been followed,'' or if they had been honest with federal FEC investigators, the outcome would have been different.

Carnahan said it was likely that, if they hadn't lied, Smith and his campaign allies might well have faced "just a fine'' -- instead of jail time.

--- As we reported earlier

- State Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, and state Rep. Steve Brown, D-Clayton, pleaded guilty Tuesday to obstructing justice in a federal investigation of Smith's unsuccessful run for Congress in 2004.

Both men also resigned Tuesday from their seats in the Missouri Legislature.

Gov. Jay Nixon called a special election for Nov. 3 to fill the two vacancies. In a statement issued by his office, he said: "The charges to which these officials pleaded guilty are a violation of the public's trust, and their resignations are both necessary and appropriate."

The pleas ended weeks of heated speculation about Smith and Brown, in the wake of a renewed federal investigation into a complaint that the victor in the 2004 contest -- now U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis -- had filed that year with the Federal Election Commission. (Click here to read the FEC general counsel's final report, issued in December 2007 and view the postcard cited below.)

Carnahan had alleged that Smith and another congressional rival, former state Rep. Joan Barry, had been involved in the distribution of 25,000 anonymous anti-Carnahan postcards to potential 3rd District voters shortly before the August 2004 Democratic primary. Smith and Barry had denied any involvement. Carnahan ended up edging out Smith in the primary.

On Tuesday, before U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson, Smith admitted that he had been involved -- and that he had lied to federal investigators in their initial probe from 2004-2007, and again when the case was revived this year. Smith also admitted that he pressured Brown and a third defendant, former campaign treasurer Nick Adams, to do likewise.

Smith said in court that he had instructed Brown, a longtime friend and campaign adviser, to raise money for the postcard effort; Brown told the judge that he had done so. Adams told the judge that he had provided the anti-Carnahan information for the postcards, and designed them, under Smith's instruction.

All three admitted they had lied previously about their roles.

Smith and Adams pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice, while Brown pleaded guilty to one count.

In a statement issued later, Smith said he was taking full responsibility for what he did, adding:

"This event has humbled me. I have done some significant introspection and that has been the hardest part: coming to terms with my own poor judgments and mistakes.

"I apologize to my constituents, my staff, my Senate colleagues, my supporters, and to Congressman Carnahan. I am sorry to be leaving an institution I dearly love and the chance to represent a city with so much potential. Most importantly, I apologize to my family for not living up to what you expect of me, or what I expect of myself."

For all three, each count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail and a fine of $250,000. Their sentencing was set for Nov. 10.However, the judge and federal prosecutors said that Brown and Adams may receive lighter sentences because of "substantial assistance" they provided during the later stages of the investigation.

Prosecutors declined to say what sort of assistance was provided, but documents provided to reporters included verbatim accounts of private meetings and phone calls in recent months involving Smith, Brown and Adams. Authorities said that Brown had been the first to cooperate, followed by Adams.

Based on their lack of criminal backgrounds and other factors, federal sentencing guidelines indicate recommendations of less than two years for each count for all three defendants. However, Jackson made a point of noting that she is not bound to the guidelines and can impose stiffer sentences up to the maximum.

Hal Goldsmith, assistant U.S. attorney, said the pleas signal an end to the case. He called what happened "textbook corruption," and a classic case of "political candidates and elected officials who lie, cheat and break laws."

Goldsmith said: "Jeff Smith lied and other members of his campaign lied at his instruction."

When asked, Goldsmith added that the three likely would have faced much lesser penalties if they had not lied to federal investigators. (Others familiar with the probe noted that no penalties were imposed on former congressional candidate Barry or her campaign, even though the FEC had determined in 2007 that they had violated some campaign laws. Barry's former aides said in recent interviews that they had made sure they told the truth during the federal probe.)

FBI special agent in charge John Gillies, who oversees the agency's St. Louis office, said the Smith-Brown case was important to the public because elected officials "owe the public their honesty and integrity above all else."

He portrayed the case as being about "money, power and greed," and he faulted Smith, Brown and Adams for "pure stupidity" from well-educated men who should know better. He noted that Smith has a Ph.D., Brown is a lawyer and Adams has a master's degree.

"We will not tolerate this kind of corruption," Gillies said.

The FBI became involved last December, Gillies said, after it obtained new evidence that ran counter to what Smith, Brown and Adams had maintained for years.

The timing of the FBI's entry into the case coincides with its unrelated search of the home of Milton "Skip" Ohlsen III, a sometime operative for the Democratic Party in Missouri.

The search of Ohlsen's home was in connection with an unrelated federal investigation into a bombing in Clayton last year, the Post-Dispatch has reported.

But sources close to the Smith-Brown case said that authorities found some audiotapes in Ohlsen's residence that tied him to the legislators and the 2004 congressional campaign.

Gillies and Goldsmith said they would not discuss Ohlsen.

Ohlsen also was not identified in any of Tuesday's court documents, but Brown lawyer Art Margulis said that Ohlsen is the "John Doe'' cited frequently in them.

Ohlsen previously had acknowledged to the FEC that he had run the Voters for Truth, the front group that sent out the anonymous postcards disparaging Carnahan. Ohlsen also had alleged for some time that his effort had been coordinated with the Smith campaign. In the final FEC report, he identifies Brown as his fundraiser. Brown got the bulk of the money for Ohlsen from two Smith donors --Adolphus Busch and Donald Musick.

Such coordination would require that the Smith campaign report any payments to Ohlsen or group. The Smith campaign had not done so. Instead, the Smith campaign had contended that Ohlsen's activities had been independent -- which are legal as long as there is no coordination with a candidate.

When the FEC had concluded its initial investigation in December 2007, it had reported that it could find no proof to back up Ohlsen's allegations of his ties to Smith. But that changed shortly after the FBI got involved last winter.

In court Tuesday, Smith, Brown and Adams told of private conversations they had -- in person or by phone -- to discuss how to they could keep the FBI from learning the truth. The meetings were prompted by the discovery that Ohlsen ("John Doe" in the federal account) had be subpoenaed earlier this year to discuss his 2004 activities for the Smith campaign.

Brown said that he sought "to persuade that person" -- Ohlsen -- "to testify falsely" to federal investigators. As the judge put it, they "offered him certain inducements not to testify honestly."

Goldsmith told reporters later that the "inducements'' were promises of additional campaign work for Smith and Brown. 

The whole affair has been a shock to allies of both Democratic legislators -- especially Smith, 35, a charismatic figure who burst on the political scene in 2003 when he launched his almost-successful bid for Congress.

At the time, Smith was a doctoral student and a popular political science instructor at Washington University and other area colleges and universities. His failed quest for Congress made him the star of an award-winning documentary, "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore'' produced by local filmmaker Frank Popper.

Smith used his same student-based grassroots operation in 2006 for his winning campaign for the state Senate. He quickly won distinction in Jefferson City, and was the city of St. Louis' leading champion in his successful fight last session to protect the state historic tax credit program that has helped fuel urban redevelopment.

Brown, 42, was among the Smith allies featured in the film. Like Smith, Brown is a graduate of Horton Watkins High School in Ladue. Brown is a lawyer, and was treasurer of Smith's 2006 state Senate campaign.

Brown also is the nephew of a legendary area legislator and women's rights icon, the late state Rep. Sue Shear, D-Clayton. Less than a year ago, Brown's ties to Shear, and his own political prowess, helped him win her old House seat. His first legislative session was earlier this year.

Brown told reporters Tuesday, as he left the federal courthouse, that he still has "a passion and commitment for public service."

Adams, 29, just completed a graduate degree in California.

Reactions To Smith's Resignation

In a brief resignation letter, received Tuesday by Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, Smith wrote:

"I regret to inform you that I am resigning as state senator from the 4th District effective today, Aug. 25, 2009. It has been an honor to serve the city of St. Louis for the last three years. Constituents of the 4th District will continue to be served by office staff until a replacement is elected."

Shields, a Republican from suburban Kansas City, later issued a statement:

“Jeff Smith was a bright young senator who worked hard for his district. I am saddened by his resignation and the circumstances surrounding it. As Senate President Pro Tem, I will take action to assure services continue to be provided to the citizens of the 4th Senatorial District during this time they are without a senator.”

Reacting to Tuesday's events, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican, released this statement: "I am saddened to learn of the guilty plea entered by my friend Sen. Jeff Smith.

"Over that past few years, we have worked together on a number of educational initiatives and other legislation to benefit the urban core in St. Louis.

"In keeping with the teaching contained in the 25th chapter of the Book of Matthew, I will stand by my friend during this dark time for him and his family. While I do not condone the actions that resulted in today's plea, his bipartisan record prior to the incident speaks for itself. Sen. Smith worked hard to create a better future for his neighbors in St. Louis, and I hope his legislative career is remembered in that manner."

Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, was more critical: "It is a sad day when those sworn to uphold the law admit instead to obstructing a federal investigation. Today's guilty pleas by high ranking Democrat officials Jeff Smith and Steve Brown illustrate the arrogant abuse of power that undermines the faith that Missourians have in their government and their representatives. Those in public office have an obligation to uphold the public's trust --- and when elected officials forget this, their careers rightly end in disgrace."

On his blog, MayorFrancis Slay, a Democrat, said:

"Jeff Smith has been an articulate and enthusiastic supporter of the city of St. Louis. His passionate and vocal advocacy for a progressive urban agenda made friends in every part of town, and on both sides of the legislative aisle. And it made some enemies, too.

"I cannot excuse nor explain the illegal activities to which he has admitted. I cannot even imagine what he was thinking.

"I strongly encourage his friends and supporters to step up and continue his work for children, urban infrastructure, and dis-invested neighborhoods."

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.