Brad's Little Problem

Why give now to Smith's son's campaign if it makes you look like a criminal?

For Immediate Release:

February 4, 2004

Contact:Timothy Noah

Slate

So, the system works after all. In the Feb. 4 Roll Call, Nicole Duran reports that the refusal by Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., to "toe the party line on Medicare does not seem to be hurting his son's campaign to succeed him in Congress."

That's because Brad Smith last year pulled in nearly $10,000 from "members' campaign committees or leadership political action committees," some of it after Smith père blabbed that an unidentified person in the House leadership had offered to give Brad's campaign "$100,000-plus" in exchange for Smith père's "yea" vote on the Medicare prescription bill. (After Nick Smith realized this accusation carried grave legal implications, he backtracked furiously.) And that doesn't count an additional $3,000 from Dad.

The problem with this sunny interpretation is that only one of those contributions—$750 from the re-election committee for Rep. Henry Hyde, R., Ill.—postdated the Nov. 22 vote. (Click here to see Smith's Federal Election Committee filing.) The rest were given before anyone had any idea that Nick Smith would, however briefly, rat out House GOP leaders. That fuels the suspicion that the House GOP is making both Smiths pay for the father's big mouth.

On the other hand consider this: After Black Saturday, Brad did receive a total of $2,500 from individual House GOP members Tom Feeney of Florida, JoAnn Emerson of Missouri, and Jim Walsh of New York. A cynic might wonder whether any or all of that cash expressed appreciation for Smith père's decision in early December to shove the genie back into the bottle. (Smith recanted Dec. 4.; the three checks were received Dec. 24, 27, and 31. The check from Hyde's campaign arrived Dec. 19, and is therefore subject to the same cynical interpretation.)

Chatterbox has no reason to believe that Hyde, Feeney, Emerson, and/or Walsh intended their contributions to Brad's campaign fund as hush money. It's much likelier that they gave the money as a gesture of friendship to their colleague, Nick Smith. Chatterbox is using these four representatives merely to illustrate one of the cruelest consequences of Smith's decision to try, however unconvincingly, to retract his bribery charge. Every dollar his son now receives from anyone in Washington who's affiliated or friendly with the Republican party will be subject to the same suspicion. Is this payment for Nick Smith's silence? A Jan. 12 editorial in the Lansing Journal casts the net even wider: "Voters now will have to wonder about any financial support Smith's son, Brad, gets from outside the 7th District [italics Chatterbox's]."

It's easy to imagine Republican members of Congress and big-time conservative PACs will decide giving any money to Brad Smith's campaign isn't worth creating the impression that you're an accessory to a federal crime. (Not giving might look like retaliation for Nick Smith's original outburst, but that's a lot less conspicuous for each individual non-giver.) And Brad can use all the financial help he can get: The leading money-raiser in the primary race has raised more than twice the cash Brad has. There's only one way for Smith to free his son from this horrible trap. If Smith comes clean, no one who gives Brad money need fear creating the impression that he is purchasing silence, because there will be no silence to buy.

Meanwhile, on the investigative front:

Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., having been rebuffed by ethics committee chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., is now urging House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to request an ethics committee investigation into the Medicare bribe. If Hastert fails to do so, as seems all but certain, Hoyer says congressional Democrats will break their (unwritten) seven-year nonaggression pact with Republicans and file an interparty ethics complaint.

In reporting this development on Feb. 2, the New York Times's Washington bureau finally lost its Medicare-bribe virginity. That's the good news. The bad news is that the Times seems bent on covering this as a partisan spat, which it most definitely is not.

Chatterbox won't deny that the Smith case has inspired some political posturing by Hoyer and by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., both of whom previously complained loudly about the Medicare bribe without exercising their right to force an ethics committee investigation. But breaking the seven-year truce would entail considerable risk, because it would invite retaliation by House majority leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the most effective bully in Congress. It would be foolish to assume the Democrats would take this step lightly.

It also should count for something that the person who made the bribery allegation against an unnamed Republican or Republicans is himself a Republican. Moreover, the person who told the Washington Post that he heard Smith say it was "people from [the House] leadership" who offered the bribe is Rep. Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota—another Republican. A third Republican—Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.—told the Post, "[S]omeone had said his son ... would be the beneficiary if he would vote for the bill, up to the tune of about $100,000. ... If Nick Smith said it happened, it happened." Tancredo, alas, didn't verify that the bribe came from the House leadership. But in a subsequent conversation, Tancredo told Chatterbox that when Smith discussed this (at dinner at a Chinese restaurant the night of the Medicare vote), "I was on almost the farthest point of the table from him." The Post also found a fourth Republican—Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Az.—who recalled Smith had said the money would come from the National Republican Congressional Committee. (An NRCC spokesman told the Post that no such offer was made by NRCC chairman Thomas M. Reynolds, R-N.Y., though that leaves plenty of other possibilities.)

How many Republican accusers do you need to establish that an ethics committee investigation would not be a partisan vendetta?

[Update, Feb. 5: The House ethics committee now says that it "initiated informal fact-finding" about the Medicare bribe on Dec. 8., which was four days after Smith changed his story. It does not say whether that fact-finding is continuing or has since become more formal. (The Jan. 22 observation by Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., that "the committee has little to go on" suggests that whatever perfunctory investigation took place is now concluded.) Meanwhile, Damon Chappie reports in Roll Call that Hastert is "furious" about what he deems partisan Democratic provocations on the Smith issue:

Republicans are not yet at the point where they would start drafting specific complaints against Democrats for potential retaliatory purposes, but they do believe they could quickly produce a number of examples of the Democratic leadership doing exactly what they accuse the GOP of doing to Smith — threatening or bribing Members for their votes.

If any Republicans have information about any Democratic members being offered or receiving anything that meets the statutory definition of a bribe (as Smith's accusation did), it's their duty as citizens to report it to the Justice Department immediately, regardless of any partisan games Democrats play or agree not to play. Bribery is against the law. If, on the other hand, House Republicans are suggesting that (non-metaphorical) bribery is nothing to get too hopped up about, then they need to be instructed otherwise.]