Hastert, Delay Queried in Smith Probe

Posted September 8, 2004 at 6:28pm

A special investigative subcommittee of the House ethics panel recently interviewed Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other House GOP leaders as part of its effort to determine whether any top Republicans sought to improperly influence Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) during a Nov. 22 vote on Medicare reform.

Hastert and DeLay are part of a large group of Republican lawmakers and staffers questioned by the investigative subcommittee as it reviews what happened during the controversial vote on creating a Medicare prescription drug plan. The four-member investigative subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.), with Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) serving as the ranking member.

One senior House Republican who apparently has not been approached by the investigative subcommittee is Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Blunt has long refused to have anything to do with Smith, viewing him as unreliable, and therefore Hulshof and Delahunt didn’t feel it was worth the time to question the Missouri lawmaker.

Hastert was interviewed by the investigative subcommittee shortly before Congress left town for the August recess. It is unclear when DeLay was interviewed.

According to GOP insiders, all the Republican leaders and aides deny offering Smith financial assistance for his son’s run for Congress in return for the Michigan Republican’s support on the Medicare bill, an allegation Smith made repeatedly in the days after the Nov. 22 vote.

Smith himself has never named the Republican who allegedly offered to steer $100,000 in contributions from business groups to his son Bradley Smith’s unsuccessful primary campaign for the House. Smith, though, specifically absolved Hastert and DeLay of any role in the controversy.

The Nov. 22 vote on a Medicare prescription drug bill was one of the most unusual in recent memory. Hastert left the vote open for nearly three hours as he and White House officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who was present on the floor, searched frantically for additional GOP support. After several hours of arm twisting, cajoling and deal-making, the proposal was adopted by a 220-215 margin. Passage of the Medicare legislation was later hailed as a major victory for President Bush and the GOP Congressional leadership.

The day after the vote, Smith wrote an account of the what occurred on his official Congressional Web site, charging that Republican leaders offered “bribes and special deals” to GOP lawmakers to get support for the Medicare bill. In another statement the following day, Smith said “other Members and groups made offers of extensive financial campaign support and endorsements for my son Brad who is running for my seat. They also made threats of working against Brad if I voted no.”

Smith later altered his account of what occurred, saying that “no specific reference was made to money,” and he has repeatedly declined to single out any one Republican for further scrutiny, at least publicly. Smith said he got the $100,000 figure from a column written by conservative commentator Robert Novak about the incident. Smith is reportedly cooperating with the ethics committee probe, and his office has turned over all documents, e-mails and phone logs related to the Medicare vote to the investigative subcommittee.

According to Gannett News Service, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) told the ethics committee in June that he took part in a dinner conversation with Smith the night before the Medicare vote in which the Michigan Republican said he had been offered $100,000 for his son’s race in return for his vote.

Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) have also said they spoke to Smith about the offers he was getting, although it is unclear if the two Republicans have spoken to the ethics committee.

Hulshof and Doyle had hoped to complete their investigation by the end of July, but the probe has now lasted six months. The two lawmakers are expected to give a report soon to Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the ethics committee’s chairman and the ranking member, respectively. Hefley and Mollohan will then have to decide whether the full ethics committee needs to take any further action in the case.