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No longer on probation, Smith is grateful for new life -- and old friends

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 6, 2012 - Former state Sen. Jeff Smith, who lost his political career over a felony conviction, is happy to look ahead now that his probation has ended 10 months early.

"It's over, baby,'' Smith said in a email interview Friday from New York, where he now lives with his young family and teaches in a graduate program at the New School, a private university.

The former St. Louis Democrat learned Wednesday that his probation was finished, a little more than a year after he left prison in late November 2010.

Smith had served eight months of an initial federal sentence of a year and a day, after pleading guilty in 2009 of lying to federal investigators about his 2004 congressional campaign's involvement in an anonymous flier attacking a Democrat rival, now-U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis. (The misdeeds also ensnared two others, now-former state Rep. Steve Brown, R-Clayton, and former campaign treasurer Nick Adams. Both received no prison sentences, but were put on probation.)

The conviction meant that Smith had to give up his state Senate seat, and any hopes of what might have been a promising political career. Since then, he has sought to rebuild his life based on his earlier academic life, and his doctoral degree in political science.

Smith moved to New York last August to begin his new teaching post. Soon after, his wife had their first child, a boy.

Smith said he had formally asked for an opinion last month as to whether his probation might be ended early. On Wednesday, his parole officer called with the good news. The judge also sent a letter to Smith's St. Louis attorney, Richard Greenberg.

"How does it feel? Obviously it's a great relief," Smith said. "Practically speaking, it will make life easier. I've been traveling a lot to give talks and before, I had to get permission each time."

That said, Smith observed that he had "developed a good relationship" with his parole officer, a veteran in the job.

"I'm sure this will sound odd but I sort of enjoyed our visits," Smith said. "After we finished the necessary business, he often asked me about politics and current events and I asked him about the probation system, how it worked, and his experiences."

Smith has sought to use that knowledge, and his own experiences, to encourage Republican legislative leaders in Missouri to consider changing the state's treatment of first-time nonviolent offenders. (Such changes would not have affected Smith, who was convicted under the federal criminal system).

Smith contends that a different approach toward nonviolent crimes could save money for the cash-strapped state and reduce the number of people who end up returning to crime after their initial sentence.

He said he had been broaching the idea for months to a personal friend -- state House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville. Tilley had told Smith a week ago that he planned to mention the former senator in his address this week opening the latest legislative session.  Smith said he had expected that Tilley would mention him in the context of possible prison reform -- and was surprised when, instead, Tilley focused on the personal.

Tilley talked of their conversations and visits while Smith was in prison, and indirectly compared Smith's troubles to some of  the speaker's own less publicized problems -- he's getting a divorce and dropped a 2012 bid for lieutenant governor. Tilley told legislators that his point was "do not lose track of the people who truly care about you for being you. I stand before you today with full knowledge that I lost track for a time and it's something I will always regret."

"Don't let that happen to you,'' Tilley had continued. "Focus your time on people who love who you are, not for what title you attain."

The two men's nonpartisan friendship had been below the radar during much of Smith's time in the spotlight. Smith said they became friends in late 2007, during Smith's first year in the Senate.

"We realized we shared an affinity for education reform, historic tax credits and 'Texas Hold 'Em,' " Smith said, the latter referring to a favorite card game.

Tilley, said Smith, "was one of the first people I told when I found out I was in trouble" in 2009. "And from that first day, through prison and today, (Tilley) has been a great friend and source of support."

Smith says he is now preparing for a new academic semester, where he will "teach the 'legislative process and laboratory in policy analysis,' an applied course that pairs grad students with NYC agencies to help the agencies address a specific policy issue."

He's also making the final touches on the manuscript of his book -- presumably about the personal, political and professional -- that Smith expects to see published later this year.

Smith has yet to sell his house in St. Louis' Shaw neighborhood and is renting it out instead. Those interested should contact him on Facebook or Twitter, Smith quipped.

He is still doing some consulting in Missouri, presumably on low-income housing and education issues, and plans to be back in St. Louis in a month to give a speech.

"I think I'll always consider St. Louis home no matter where I am," Smith concluded. "But I love The New School and love NYC, so right now I have no plans to return."

But he expects to keep in touch with old friends like Tilley.

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.