Smith Talks With Ethics Leaders

Posted February 13, 2004 at 6:02pm

By John Bresnahan Roll Call Staff Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) last week spoke with Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W. Va.), the chairman and ranking member of the House ethics committee, about allegations that GOP lawmakers improperly sought to influence him during a controversial Nov. 22 vote on Medicare.

Smith declined to elaborate on his discussions with Hefley and Mollohan, who have launched an “informal fact-finding” investigation into his case, and added that he has not yet hired a lawyer to represent him before the ethics committee. Smith said he knew “lots of lawyers who could help him,” a reference to his House colleagues.

Smith also repeated his belief that the GOP pressure tactics used during the Medicare vote — which he had previously said included offers of $100,000 for his son Brad’s campaign for Congress, as well as threats to defeat the younger Smith if his father didn’t fall into line — “probably didn’t meet the legal definition of bribery.” Smith is retiring from Congress at the end of this session, and his son is seeking to succeed him.

The Michigan Republican added, as he has on several other occasions, that he was sorry that he had used the word bribery in his initial descriptions of what happened during the Medicare vote.

The Smith case is expected to be on the ethics committee agenda when it meets Feb. 25, the first time the entire committee has assembled since October 2003. An earlier meeting set for last Thursday was rescheduled after the House’s legislative lineup changed and the body adjourned a day early for the Presidents’ Day recess.

House Democrats are anxious for the ethics committee to move from its “informal fact-finding” into a full-blown review of Smith’s original allegations. Democrats may file a formal ethics charge if the committee does not move on its own to a full investigation.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) left open the Medicare vote for nearly three hours as top Republicans and White House officials tried frantically to convince GOP lawmakers to support a $400 billion Medicare prescription drug bill.

The day after the vote, Smith, who refused to back the initiative, charged that unnamed party leaders used “bribes and special deals” to convince reluctant Republicans to support the proposal. The Medicare bill passed by a 220-215 vote.

Just over a week later, Smith told a Michigan radio station that he was offered $100,000 for Brad Smith’s campaign if he voted yes, and conservative columnist Robert Novak reported that Smith was taunted by other Members, including Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), after casting his no vote. These Members allegedly told Smith that his son would never make it to Congress because of that vote.

Cunningham last week refused to discuss the specifics of what he had said to Smith on the floor, insisting that he would do so only to the ethics committee, although he did admit his comments related to Brad Smith.

Smith himself has backed away somewhat from his initial comments about the Medicare vote. He told The Detroit News in an interview Wednesday that, “I was told we could give Brad aggressive and substantial campaign support. I interpreted that as to include financial support for his campaign. Nobody actually said there will be financial support for Brad.”

Smith added: “Nobody mentioned any dollar amount. Members of Congress are really too smart to come up to you on the floor and say, ‘We’ll give you this many dollars for this.’”

Cunningham, who hovered around Smith for most of the vote according to his own recollection, said that he “never heard any mention of money” to his Michigan colleague.

But he said Brad Smith’s future and the potential impact on his Congressional campaign if his father voted “no” on the Medicare bill was raised by GOP lawmakers lobbying the elder Smith. “It did come up,” acknowledged Cunningham, refusing to elaborate.