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Legislators come to Brown's aid, ask judge to keep him out of prison

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 4, 2009 - About a dozen Missouri legislators, Republicans and Democrats, have filed letters with a federal judge in St. Louis in hopes of helping former state Rep. Steve Brown avoid prison time.

Brown's lawyer, Art Margulis, said late Wednesday that he submitted about 80 letters from Brown's friends, allies and former colleagues to the court this week, along with Margulis' own memorandum asking Judge Carol Jackson to consider punishments that don't include incarceration.

Sentencing is set for Nov. 17, the lawyer said.

The letters, said Margulis, were "for the most part unsolicited'' and "point out Steve's exemplary characteristics -- and at the same time, seek leniency."

Margulis declined to identify the legislators, but did say that no other prominent political figures were among the letter-writers.

Brown, a Democrat from Clayton, pleaded guilty on Aug. 25 to one federal charge of conspiracy to obstruct justice in connection with his activities during the almost-successful 2004 congressional campaign of his friend, former state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis.

(This week's special election in the 73rd state House District was to select Brown's successor. Democrat Stacey Newman won.)

Smith and a former Smith campaign aide, Nick Adams, both pleaded guilty in August to two federal charges stemming from Smith's quest to cover up his campaign's illegal coordination with an independent political operation conducted on his behalf by activist Milton "Skip" Ohlsen III.

Smith admitted instructing Brown to secretly raise money for Ohlsen, who sent out postcards to thousands of potential voters that disparaged a Smith rival, now-U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

The two politicians and Adams also admitted in their guilty pleas that they lied to investigators with the Federal Election Commission, which looked into the case in response to a formal complaint filed by Carnahan.

Brown and Smith both resigned their legislative posts as a result of their pleadings.

Brown, an attorney, also surrendered his law license and resigned from his post as a trustee of Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois.

Brown was not charged with a second federal count because he wore recording equipment at the behest of FBI investigators, after they queried him in June about the campaign activity and the denials filed with the FEC. Those recordings produced incriminating evidence against Smith and Adams, obtained during the trio's meetings this summer to discuss the federal probe.

Margulis noted in his court memorandum that Brown "was immediately forthright and completely truthful" when he was initially confronted by the FBI. (Margulis' memo was first made public Wednesday on theTurner Report blog site, which also asserts that Smith and Adams have filed sealed documents with the court challenging their recommended punishments.)

Authorities had obtained incriminating evidence against Brown when investigators had searched Ohlsen's residence last December during an unrelated investigation, and found Ohlsen's recording of 2006 conversations with Brown, in which he asked Ohlsen to lie to the FEC about the Smith campaign's involvement in Ohlsen's campaign activities.

Wrote Margulis: "(Brown) realized that what he had done to help derail the review being conducted by the Federal Election Commission was unlawful and morally wrong as well. Consequently, without hesitation he endeavored to remedy the situation as best he could by being candid and completely truthful with the agents. He also actively participated in cooperation with them in the furtherance of their investigation...."

The lawyer added that the charges against Smith and Adams "would have been difficult or unlikely without the assistance rendered by Mr. Brown...."

Margulis asked the judge to consider that assistance, and "the embarrassment and humiliation suffered by Mr. Brown,'' in determining a sentence.

The lawyer went on to request probation for Brown, "with significant community service."

"Although he has no law license, a position (pro bono) with the Eastern Missouri Legal Services Office would benefit the community, as well as himself,'' Margulis wrote.

"Under such an arrangement Mr. Brown could assist staff lawyers, however, (he) could not advise clients, could not appear in court or perform any other function ordinarily done by an attorney. This type of activity has been approved in the past for lawyers who have been disbarred and in fact has been encouraged."

Brown has maintained a low public profile since the August court appearance. "He's been handling himself quite well,'' Margulis said. "He's certainly remorseful, but he's standing up well."

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.