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Jeff Smith recounts his troubled summer

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 19, 2009 - Former state Sen. Jeff Smith says he expects to report to prison in about six weeks to begin serving his sentence of 12 months and one day, imposed this week as punishment for the felony charges stemming from his 2004 bid for Congress.

Smith, 35, has yet to learn which federal prison will be his temporary home.

But in an interview Thursday, conducted largely via text messages (and confirmed by a phone call), the former Democratic legislator from St. Louis did shed light on this summer's timeline of his troubles, which began on June 1 when the FBI confronted his then-friend, now former state Rep. Steve Brown.

The FBI made Brown aware of incriminating tape recordings that the agency had obtained of at least one 2006 conversation between Brown and a Democratic operative, Skip Ohlsen, about illegal contact during Smith's congressional campaign. Ohlsen has been sentenced to prison on unrelated charges.

(According to the federal indictment, Brown met with Ohlsen twice on Nov. 14, 2006 -- at a health club and a Starbucks -- to exhort Ohlsen not to disclose to federal authorities that Ohlsen had gotten help from the Smith campaign in raising money for a postcard blitz conducted by Ohlsen on behalf of Smith right before the 2004 primary.)

(The postcards disparaged a rival, now-U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis. Smith ran afoul of the law because he had denied to the Federal Election Commission, and later to the FBI, that his campaign had coordinated with Ohlsen. Coordination would have required the Smith campaign to foot the bill, and report the expenditures. It did neither.)

At that June 1 meeting with the FBI, Brown admitted guilt and agreed immediately to the agency's request that he wear a wire to record conversations with Smith and former campaign aide Nick Adams.

The recorded conversations were as late as June 30, Smith said. One of them featured the now-infamous discussion about purchasing throw-away cell phones so that the trio could avoid detection from authorities.

Smith first met with the FBI on June 30, and continued to deny any coordination with Ohlsen during the congressional campaign.

On July 12, Smith said, he learned that Brown had been wired and had taped their conversations. Smith said he immediately hired local defense attorney Richard Greenberg.

As Smith recalls, he listened to Brown's tapes in mid-July, roughly the week before his annual 3-on-3 basketball tournament and community fair in his district.

Smith was accompanied by Greenberg as he met with FBI investigators. "My attorney advised me to say nothing and show no emotion when we listened to the tapes," Smith wrote.

"I did as instructed. Then, after consultation with my attorney, decided to plead guilty and contacted Hal (Goldsmith, assistant U.S. attorney) immediately."

Smith said his only concern at that time "was I wanted assurances" from the U.S. attorney's office "that they would not indict before the 3-on-3 tournament which we'd spent months preparing for."

Smith indicated that he was mystified by Goldsmith's comment in court Tuesday, during the sentencing of Adams, that investigators "never saw a 'light' go on in Mr. Smith's head." The inference was the legislator failed to recognize the seriousness of his illegal actions when ;he had continued to deny any campaign contact with Ohlsen.

"I talked to Goldsmith in late July a few days after hearing the tapes," Smith wrote. "I sat in his office and listened to them without saying a word, per the instruction of my attorney -- thus, the prosecutor's apparent 'insight' into my head."

When asked in the interview with the Beacon whether he had been stonewalling, Smith replied, "I was not 'still stonewalling.' I said nothing."

"I told Goldsmith everything once we were assured that the indictment wouldn't be public until after the tourney."

Smith pleaded guilty to federal felony charges of obstruction of justice, along with Brown and Adams, weeks later, on Aug. 25. (The two others were each sentenced Tuesday to two years probation.)

Smith and Brown resigned their legislative posts. Brown, a lawyer, has surrendered his license and is disbarred. Smith, who has a doctorate, also lost his post as an adjunct professor of political science at Washington University.

The guilty pleas put an end to what had been a promising political career for Smith, who already had been starred in an award-winning documentary -- "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore" -- about the 2004 campaign. 

The filmmaker, Frank Popper, was at Tuesday's sentencing. Popper said he had no plans at the moment to amend the film, which portrays Smith as a charismatic and talented, if flawed, political newcomer. (Editor's note: This writer also is in the movie, as a commentator.)

Why was there a delay of several weeks in the indictments and guilty pleas, after Smith had admitted all to federal prosecutors? "The plea was in late August because the U.S. Atty pushed for some things in the stipulation of facts that were not true, or that I did not know," Smith said.

"For instance, I tried to keep other members of my campaign staff out of the indictment. If I was not aware that they had met with Ohlsen, I did not want to agree to a stipulation of facts claiming that they had."

As for reports that the FBI wanted him to wear a wire, in an attempt to catch other local politicians, Smith would say only, "I could not provide the assistance sought by the government. I'll leave it at that."

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office said Friday that Goldsmith would not comment further.

Smith said his last voice conversation with Brown was sometime between June 30 and July 12, although Brown has sent some text messages since then.

Smith said he expects no future contact with Brown or with Adams.

Of Brown, he added, "Everyone has choices. Steve Brown had one, and so did I. We live with the consequences of our choices."

At Tuesday's sentencing, Greenberg and Judge Carol Jackson noted that more than 100 people had written letters on Smith's behalf, requesting some leniency by the court because of his various civic activities. Smith says the total was close to 250.

The letter writers included Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, acting in a personal capacity, and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. The list was sealed until late Thursday, when the judge made the letters available to the public, Smith's lawyer said. Earlier in the week, Political Fix somehow obtained an interesting rundown.

Slay provided a copy Friday of his letter, in which he says in part:

"...This is a different sort of letter. I cannot recall having ever agreed or, even, been asked to write a letter for a person so near the beginning of a life and a career ... Even taken together, Jeff's significant accomplishments do not fully outweigh the serious violations of public trust to which he has admitted.

"Yet, the very shortness of Jeff Smith's career suggest a compelling reason for the court to consider lenience. Using his start as an indication of his most likely direction, it is clear to me that this is a young man who could accomplish a great deal for his community during the next forty years. He belongs in a neighborhood, a community center, or a classroom, not in a cell...."

A spokeswoman for Koster said he would have no further comment about his letter.

Jackson's decision to sentence Smith to one year and a day in prison could well mean that he'll be out in 10 months, if he exhibits good behavior. It's the extra day that makes the difference.

Under federal guidelines, a sentence of 12 months or less must to served fully. But the extra day gives Smith a sentence of more than a year, thus allowing more latitude for prison officials.

What are his current plans until he enters prison? "Before I leave," Smith wrote, "I am spending time with my family and close friends, reading, and writing."

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.