Nick Smith Recants

Did the pressure get to him?

Nick Smith now says he was never offered money for his son’s campaign in exchange for supporting the Bush Medicare prescription bill. Chatterbox doesn’t believe him.

Earlier this week, Chatterbox urged Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., to reveal who attempted to bribe him into voting for the Bush Medicare prescription bill, which he opposed on the grounds that it was too expensive. After the Nov. 22 vote, Smith had complained to the Associated Press that somebody—the AP report, in a paraphrase, said it was “House GOP leaders”—had exerted “the most intense and strongest pressure to change my vote that I’ve ever experienced.” Subsequently, Robert Novak had reported in his column that “On the House floor, Nick Smith was told”—by whom, Novak didn’t say—that“business interests would give his son $100,000 in return for his father’s vote.” Smith is retiring at the end of this term, and his son Brad is seeking the Republican nomination to succeed him.

Chatterbox’s pedantic contribution to this story was to observe, after consulting Washington attorney Marc Miller, that what Novak described met the statutory definition of bribery under United States Code, Title 18, Section 201, “Bribery of public officials and witnesses.  (It’s bribery whenever “anything of value” is promised “with intent to influence any official act,” even when the money is offered to another “person or entity.” There’s an exception under the Constitution’s “speech and debate clause” for government business, but campaign contributions aren’t government business.) Why wasn’t the criminal component recognized earlier? Chatterbox would guess the obstacle was the collective habit in Washington of using words like “bribery” metaphorically to describe the corrupt-but-legal nexus of money and power. It can be hard to remember that “bribery” has a specific meaning in criminal law.

Four days ago, Smith told Chatterbox, via his chief of staff, that Novak’s column was “basically accurate.” That left only one question: Who tried to bribe him? Smith wouldn’t say. Smith had issued a Nov. 24 press release complaining about “arm-twisting” he’d received on the House floor and then quoting extensively from a Washington Post account of Speaker Dennis Hastert and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson pressuring Smith on the House floor. When asked about Smith’s accusation, Hastert press spokesman John Feehery had offered the weak denial that Hastert had merely said “that a vote on this would help him and help his son because it would be a popular vote.” By the time Chatterbox caught up with Smith’s chief of staff, the talking point was that Smith’s allegations were not directed at Hastert, nor Thompson, nor House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Beyond that, Smith refused to describe the guilty party. Now the talking point is that there is no guilty party.

During the last few days, Smith’s story has received heightened (and clearly unwanted) attention. The Campaign Legal Center and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, two watchdog groups, filed complaints with the Justice Department. So, inevitably, did Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The Detroit Free Press today has an editorial urging Smith to tell what he knows. Yesterday, the Justice Department said it would look into the matter, as it does with all such complaints.

This was the context in which Smith yesterday issued a statement that said, “No specific reference was made to money.” Smith continued: “I want to make clear that no member of Congress made an offer of financial assistance for my son’s campaign in exchange for my vote on the Medicare bill.” Rather, Smith said, “I was told that my vote could result in interested groups giving substantial and aggressive campaign ‘support’ and ‘endorsements.’ Some [House] members said they would work against Brad if I voted no.”

But that flatly contradicts a Nov. 23 commentarystill posted on Smith’ssite. In that, Smith says “bribes and special deals were offered to convince members to vote yes” and elaborates, “Other members and groups [i.e., not Hastert or Thompson] made offers of extensive financial campaign support [italics Chatterbox’s] and endorsements for my son Brad who is running for my seat.” Smith’s denial also appears to contradict what his son told the Lansing State Journal:

Brad Smith said his father told him the evening before the vote that a combination of “interest groups and key Republicans” had offered the congressman “financial contributions and endorsements” for Brad Smith’s campaign.

It was laudably brave for Smith to go public about illegal behavior he witnessed on the House floor. But it’s brought him nothing but grief. That surely explains Smith’s apparent decision to change his story. But it doesn’t excuse it.