Bob Novak Ate My Brain!

The Medicare bribe story gets weird.

Get ready for the third version of Rep. Nick Smith’s Medicare bribery story.

Version 1—by far the most convincing—was Smith’s allegation that someone in the House leadership (whom he declined to identify) had offered to give “$100,000-plus” to his son Brad’s congressional campaign if he would only change his “no” vote on the Medicare prescription-drug bill to a “yes.” Smith, a Michigan Republican who’s decided not to run for re-election, stuck by his guns and voted “no” (on the grounds that it would create an expensive new entitlement), then spoke out angrily against these heavy-handed political tactics.

Version 2 came into being after Chatterbox, reacting to columnist Robert Novak’s report on the $100,000 offer, pointed out that it easily met the legal definition of a bribe under United States Code, Title 18, Section 201. Smith himself had used the word “bribes” to describe what occurred on the House floor the night of the vote, but either he hadn’t thought through the implications, or he hadn’t meant “bribes” in the non-metaphorical, alderman-goes-to-jail sense of the word. As pressure mounted for the Justice Department to investigate, Smith apparently got worried and clammed up.

Smith had expected to win kudos for being a brave man of principle. Instead, he was starting to look like an uncooperative witness in a potential criminal investigation. So, he issued a statement on Dec. 4 that said, “[N]o member of Congress made an offer of financial assistance for my son’s campaign in exchange for my vote on the Medicare bill.” Although “[t]he lobbying from members was intense,” Smith insisted that "[n]o specific reference was made to money.” Smith saw “no need for an ethics investigation, let alone a criminal investigation.”

Version 2 was a recantation. That raised a question: Why would Smith say somebody tried to bribe him (citing the very specific figure of $100,000) and then later on say nobody tried to bribe him? Smith steered around that riddle by arguing that Version 1 had been misunderstood. Unfortunately, Smith had left behind a trail of earlier, easy-to-retrieve statements that seemed pretty clear. He’d written in a Nov. 23 column distributed to Michigan newspapers that he’d received “offers of extensive financial campaign support and endorsements for my son Brad.” He’d spelled out the interaction more explicitly in a Dec. 1 radio interview with Kevin Vandenbroek of WKZO in Kalamazoo (to listen to it, click here):

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 [my congressional seat] 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.

Smith’s public comments had left a sliver of ambiguity about who “they” were. But in private comments over dinner on the night of the vote, two Republican House members remember that Smith made clear he was talking about the Republican leadership in the House, according to a Dec. 23 story by R. Jeffrey Smith in the Washington Post. One of the two Republicans went on the record:

Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.),who was present at the dinner, recalled Smith saying it was “people from leadership” who had offered the money. He said Smith did not say who it was, but he assumed it was someone who controlled a “large leadership PAC, who can raise a hundred thousand dollars by hosting a few fundraisers.”

Taken together, Smith’s column, the WKZO interview, and the Post piece rendered Version 2 impossible to sustain. And so we have Version 3.

Version 3, according to news accounts of Smith’s public comments back in his district earlier this week, amends Version 2 in two ways.

Did Rep. Smith say “[n]o specific reference was made to money”? Well, OK, there was one specific reference to money, but it was made by someone Smith seems to suggest was a bystander rather than a participant in the negotiations. In the first documented telling of Version 3, Smith seems unsure whether this Phantom Kibitzer (PK) exists:

“I was told there would be aggressive, substantial support for my son, Brad [in his race for Congress] if I could vote yes on the bill,” Smith said. “There were offers of endorsements and so maybe[italics Chatterbox’s] a member [of Congress] sitting close by said, ‘Boy that really could be big money.’ Tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. But never was I offered any exact amount of money in exchange for my vote.”Smith added, “Technically, in the legal description that I later reviewed on what a bribe is, probably it didn’t meet the legal description of a bribe.”Smith: ‘Technically’ No Bribe,” by David Frownfelder, in the (Adrian, Mich.) Daily Telegram, Jan. 6.

In a subsequent telling of Version 3, Smith is a little more definite about the PK’s existence but still isn’t totally clear about whether he or she is just a kibitzer:

“Nobody ever mentioned exact dollars, but what people said was that there would be strong endorsements,” Smith said. “Another member said ‘Well, that could mean tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.’ ““Rep . Smith Says He Was ‘Mistaken’ About $100K Offer,” by Stacey Range, in the Lansing State Journal, Jan. 7.

Clearly, PK is someone we all must get to know better.

The second way Version 3 amends Version 2 is such a treat that Chatterbox had to save it for last. Did Rep. Smith tell WKZO that “the first offer was to give [son Brad] $100,000-plus for his campaign and endorsement by national leadership”? OK, that one can’t be finessed with the kibitzer story. Smith did say it. But only because he was experiencing a momentary Bob Novak acid flashback! Fade in on a Detroit freeway, where our hero is driving home from a public appearance with President Bush while simultaneously doing a phone interview with WKZO’s Kevin Vandenbroek. We’ll let Smith (as quoted in the Daily Telegram story) take it from here:

“I read it for the first time in Bob Novak’s column,” Smith said Monday. “I was driving back from the President’s visit to Detroit and talking on my cell phone, driving in Detroit traffic and I repeated that hundred thousand dollar figure. But an exact figure was never offered to me.”

Just in case you think it was Daily Telegram reporter Frownfelder who had the acid flashback, the same story appears in the Lansing State Journal article. But if was an acid flashback (Smith, of course, doesn’t use precisely those words to describe the phenomenon), it must have been a pretty long one, because that same day Smith conveyed the message to Chatterbox (through his chief of staff, Kurt Schmautz) that Novak’s column reporting that “[o]n the House floor, Nick Smith was told business interests would give his son $100,000 in return for his father’s vote” was “basically accurate.” Maybe Chatterbox was having a Bob Novak acid flashback! Or maybe Novak really is, as liberals sometimes maintain, the devil, and he’d taken possession of both of our bodies! If Chatterbox has to call in Father Lankester Merrin, he’s sending the bill to CNN’s Capital Gang.

Medicare Bribe Archive:
Dec. 23, 2003: “Now It’s A Scandal
Dec. 8, 2003: “A Drug-Company Bribe?
Dec. 6, 2003: “Why Smith Can’t Recant
Dec. 5, 2003: “Nick Smith Recants
Dec. 1, 2003: “Who Tried To Bribe Rep. Smith?