Why Smith Can’t Recant

They’ve got him on tape.

A taped interview with a Kalamazoo, Mich. radio station virtually proves that Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., has morphed from a whistleblower into an uncooperative witness in a potential bribery investigation.

To review: Late last month, Smith said that “bribes and special deals were offered to convince members to vote yes” on the Bush administration’s Medicare prescription-benefit bill. Smith is retiring from Congress at the end of this term, and his son is running for the GOP nomination to succeed him. Smith said that somebody—he wouldn’t specify who, but an Associated Press report said it was “House GOP leaders,” and a Smith press release issued the day after the vote seemed to hint it was House Speaker Dennis Hastert or Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson—”made offers of extensive financial campaign support and endorsements for my son Brad who is running for my seat.” Smith, a fiscal conservative, resisted the offer (or offers) and voted against the Medicare bill. A few days later, Robert Novak wrote—in a column that Smith, speaking via his chief of staff, told Chatterbox was “basically accurate”—that Smith had been told Brad’s campaign would receive $100,000 from “business interests” if Smith voted yes. If that really happened, then Smith was the recipient of an unambiguous attempted bribe, punishable under federal law.

Until this past Thursday, Smith stood by his accusations, but declined to identify the person (or persons) he was accusing, except to say that it wasn’t Hastert, Thompson, or Majority Leader Tom DeLay. For his part, Hastert is quoted saying in the Dec. 6 New York Times (in a beat-sweetener by Carl Hulse about Hastert’s emergence as a forceful legislative leader), “[W]e didn’t give away a dime.”

Smith backed off on Dec. 4, just as he was starting to feel some heat from the growing prospect of a Justice Department investigation. “No specific reference was made to money,” he said. “I was told that my vote could result in interested groups giving substantial and aggressive campaign ‘support’ and ‘endorsements.’ “

Chatterbox pointed out yesterday that Smith’s new line contradicts what he said earlier about “extensive financial campaign support” and his son’s recollection, as related to the Lansing State Journal, that Smith had told him “interest groups and key Republicans” had offered “financial contributions and endorsements.” Smith tried to finesse this by telling the Associated Press that his recollection that money had been offered had been “technically incorrect.”

But what about the $100,000? It’s pretty hard to see ambiguity in the offer of so specific an amount of money. And Smith was on record confirmingNovak’s $100,000 figure; he’d relayed the message to Chatterbox that Novak’s column was “basically accurate.” Would Smith try to argue that his chief of staff had garbled what he said? Would Smith say that the qualifier “basically” meant, “no money, and certainly not $100,000”?

That sliver of wiggle room has now been eliminated by Kevin Vandenbroek of WKZO radio in Kalamazoo. According to a report last night by WOOD TV, a Grand Rapids station, Smith confirmed the $100,000 offer in a taped phone interview with Vandenbroek on Dec. 1:

And so the first offer was to give [Brad] $100,000-plus for his campaign, and endorsements by national leadership, and I said no, I’m going to stick to my guns on what I think is right for the constituents in my district.

Unless Smith wants to argue he was suffering from hallucinations, he needs to retreat from his retreat. Otherwise he’s going to look like Frankie “Five Angels” Pentangeli in Godfather II, interrupting his congressional testimony on mob activity when he sees that the Corleones have flown his brother in from Sicily. “I don’t—I never knew no godfather,” Pentangeli blurts out. “I got my own family, Senator.” Smith, of course, is no criminal, and whoever bribed him is surely no mobster threatening murder. Otherwise the analogy resonates. But there’s still time for Smith to look like Terry Malloy, the whistle-blowing longshoreman portrayed by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, who testifies against his corrupt union boss and leads a heroic march onto the docks as music swells from Leonard Bernstein’s score. That’s a much classier way to end a career.

[ Update, 5 p.m.: Chatterbox has now listened to Smith’s taped interview with Kevin Vandenbroek of WKZO. (To hear it yourself, click here.) In addition to demonstrating that somebody offered “$100,000-plus” to Smith’s son’s campaign if Smith voted yes on Medicare—why else would Smith have said so?—the tape comes close to establishing that this “somebody” (or somebodies) belonged to the House leadership. Smith doesn’t flat-out say, “I was offered a bribe by the House GOP leadership.” But his mention of the “$100,000-plus” comes during a larger discussion about pressure he received from … the House GOP leadership. At the end of his comments, Smith seems, as usual, to absolve Hastert and Thompson.

Because context is so important here, Chatterbox reprints Vandenbroek’s entire interview below. The question Vandenbroek kicks off with mentions President Bush because Smith had just spent the afternoon  with Bush in Dearborn.

Q: Now, just last week, the controversial bill passed, the health care reform bill passed the Congress. Have kind of the axes been buried? Is everybody kind of make up and move on? How did you communicate with the president about the vote from last week?A: [inaudible] when civility breaks down, and arm twisting gets so serious. Kevin, here’s sort of what happened. If the bill gets on the floor, and it’s up for a vote, and they start the vote, the prestige of leadership is partially at stake if the vote doesn’t succeed for the majority. And that’s what happened in this case. They didn’t have the votes. I had voted against, last year and last spring, against the prescription drug add-on provisions that’s gonna [sic.] cost [our] grandkids a heck of a lot of money. And the arm-twisting was probably as strong as I’ve ever seen it in my sixteen years in the Michigan legislature and my eleven years in Congress.They threatened—here’s what they did. They started out by offering the carrot, and they know what’s important to every member, and what’s important to me is my family and my kids. And I’ve term-limited * myself, and so Bradley my son is running for office and so the first offer was to give him $100,000-plus for his campaign and endorsement by national leadership. And I said No, I’m gonna stick to my guns on what I think is right for the constituents in my district. And so what they did then is come forth with sort of the stick, and they said, Well, if you don’t change your vote—this was about 4 a.m. Saturday morn—then some of us are going to work to make sure your son doesn’t get to Congress. And that kind of personal attack is just sort of beyond what anybody should do. So I told them to get the heck out of there and I mighta used a different word besides heck, I don’t know. But it’s a tough situation when civility breaks down.Q:  A week later, are we seeing that we are getting back to more civil climes, more civil environments under the dome?A: Well, you know, the leadership is, they talked, when they scrunched me in between the secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, and the Speaker of the House, Denny Hastert, they talked about philosophy and principle, and what this would mean policy-wise, maybe in future years. And it still, in terms of the tremendous increase in cost to future generations, was a no for me. It doesn’t do that much for seniors. It’ll probably help in the election next year. But three and five years from now, people are going to find out what’s in the bill and they’re gong to start hurting, and I think they’re gonna start blaming the people that voted for it.

The mention of Thompson and Hastert at the end may be an attempt to exonerate them.]

Correction, Dec. 9, 2003:Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this item rendered the phrase “term-limited” as “sure limited.” (Return to corrected sentence.)