This week, State Sen. Jeff Smith (D-St. Louis), State Rep. Steve Brown (D-Clayton) and Nick Adams, a graduate student who served as Smith’s campaign treasurer in his 2004 congressional campaign, pled guilty to federal charges concerning a cover-up of their involvement in illegal (but less serious) coordination of that campaign with purported “independent expenditures” by a separate one-man committee. That guy would later get involved with serious, unrelated charges that led federal investigators to stumble upon evidence tying Brown to a coverup of the election infractions. Brown was apparently the domino that took down the others.
Authorities did not announce any action against Clay Haynes, another member of the 2004 Smith campaign who plea documents indicate also agreed to cover up his role in the improper coordination. Haynes went on to serve as a field director for last year’s presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.
I won’t comment on Brown, whom I never knew (or even met). But in the case of Smith, this sad episode marks the apparent end of the most promising progressive political career that the St. Louis area had seen in at least a generation. Smith had progressive principles, and he used his political career to advance those principles, not the other way around. As a rookie senator in the body’s minority party, he demonstrated an ability to get positive things done by finding common ground with his political opposites, much better than his fellow Democrats whose “blue dog” credentials put them in closer ideological proximity to the Republican majority.
But what set Smith apart most was his inspiring charisma that motivated thousands of citizens, mostly young and mostly progressive, to care about and get involved in politics and government for the first time. People had been justifiably cynical about politicians, and Smith seemed to be the breath of fresh air that we all craved. His overriding goal in all things seemed to us to be to do the right thing, whether that resulted in winning or losing. In the congressional campaign, he fought a political family dynasty that tarred the Democratic Party with an elitist brand that betrayed its natural populism, a brand that is certain to haunt Missouri Democrats in 2010.
Unfortunately, things weren’t completely as they seemed. Jeff now admits doing things I didn’t think he would even consider doing. First, in the congressional campaign, he worked with campaign volunteers (apparently including long-time friend Brown, campaign manager to then Attorney General and now Gov. Jay Nixon) to coordinate the production and distribution of anti-Carnahan attack mailers that were disguised as being “independently” produced by a supposedly independent committee. Jeff’s campaign provided the guy who was the committee with the information to put in the mailers and mailing lists for their distribution, and Jeff caused his treasurer Adams to get Jeff’s donors to make separate contributions to the “independent” committee to pay for the mailers. That’s the kind of thing we’d expect from the campaigns we were fighting, not Jeff’s.
And then Jeff made the same classic (and criminal) mistake that politicians have been making regularly ever since Richard Nixon. After “sore winner” Russ Carnahan pursued a complaint against that mailing with the Federal Election Commission, Jeff tried to cover it up. Jeff now admits misleading FEC investigators by denying his knowledge of what transpired and signing a false affidavit to that effect. Brown, Adams, Haynes and campaign manager Artie Harris apparently did the same. That worked for Jeff, until the residence of the guy who did the mailing got raided by federal investigators looking into unrelated charges, and incriminating evidence against Brown in the Smith matter was found. Asked again by FEC investigators, Jeff lied again. And he compounded the problem by encouraging Brown and Adams to do the same. That transformed mere lies (serious enough) into conspiracy.
Brown, already doomed by evidence found in the raid, agreed to wear a wire in further discussions with the others. Thereafter, this past June, Smith met at least twice more with Brown and Adams, in which he was taped suggesting lies that Brown should tell the FBI. Especially disappointing to me, Jeff went on to pursue the classic “old politics” ploy, “blame the dead guy.” That was Harris, the campaign manager who, suffering from depression, had committed suicide in 2007, about two months after he had admitted to the FBI his own role in providing information to the guy who did the flyers. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (my source of information for these events) quoted Jeff as saying, with uncharacteristic insensitivity, “Artie would totally want us to throw him under the bus here.”
What had made Jeff so appealing was the impression that he really was better than other politicians. What makes Jeff’s fall from grace so discouraging is the continuing feeling that, in spite of this conviction, he is still better than the rest. Put another way, the other pols out there probably really did do similar acts or worse, and they continue to ply their trade with impunity. It makes me question whether participation in the process is really worth it.
Smith can (and I hope will) still provide valuable and progressive public service to the community, but in ways that realistically do not include ever holding elective public office again. I am deeply disappointed, but I wish him well. The other qualities that made Jeff a great guy are still there.