Court: prison, probation for former legislators


Former state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, was sentenced Tuesday to a year and a day in prison for improper activities during his unsuccessful run for Congress in 2004. He was also fined $50,000.

Smith, who pleaded guilty in August to two felony counts, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson to 12 months and one day on each count, to be served concurrently. He also was placed on two years of supervised release.

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Former state Rep. Steve Brown, D-Clayton, got two years probation and a $40,000 fine in connection with his activities during Smith’s campaign.

Finally, former Smith campaign treasurer Nick Adams was sentenced to two years probation on each count, to run concurrently, and a fine of $5,000.

All three had apologized in court for the actions that led to their obstruction of justice charges. As Adams put it: “I only hope in years to come others will learn from my negative example.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith, who had prosecuted all three cases, in court praised Brown’s cooperation as extraordinary. He also told the judge that Adams, after initially being uncooperative, had changed his mind after federal agents brought him in to listen to key evidence against him–taped conversations between all three men, courtesy of a hidden recording device on Brown.

When Adams heard the tapes, “a ‘light’ went off in his head” as he recognized the gravity of his wrongdoing, prompting him to cooperate, Goldsmith said.

In contrast, Goldsmith added, “We never saw a ‘light’ in Mr. Smith’s head.”

After sentencing Adams, the last of the three, the judge observed that she didn’t understand why “a bunch of smart guys like you could do something so boneheaded…. I just don’t get it.”

Koster writes letter in support of Smith

All three men pleaded guilty in August to federal felony obstruction of justice charges related to Smith’s unsuccessful 2004 bid for the 3rd District congressional seat now held by the victor, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

Late in that campaign, Carnahan filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Smith and another rival, former state legislator Joan Barry, alleging among other things that they had inappropriately assisted in the production and circulation of a postcard disparaging Carnahan and sent to thousands of residents in the 3rd District.

The postcard had been produced by a sometime Democratic operative, Skip Ohlsen, who was allegedly conducting an independent expenditure against Carnahan. Such an activity is not illegal, but it must not be coordinated or assisted by any candidate–otherwise, that candidate must pay for the activity and include the spending on the candidate’s campaign report.

Smith admitted in his guilty plea that he did assist Ohlsen, and had his friend Brown help Ohlsen raise money from Smith allies. Adams was a deputy treasurer on Smith’s campaign and was instructed to help as well. Smith did not report that help in his campaign reports, and lied about it to federal investigators with the FEC and, later, with the FBI.

In late 2008, the FBI raided Ohlsen’s residence in an unrelated investigation. According to Brown’s lawyer, the FBI also obtained some of Ohlsen’s tape recordings of his conversations, including at least one in which he and Brown discuss the FEC probe.

The FBI confronted Brown with the tapes on June 1, his lawyer said, and he agreed to wear a hidden recording device that subsequently recorded incriminating conversations with Smith and Adams.

On June 30, the FBI interviewed Smith, who continued to deny his involvement–setting in motion the actions that led to his guilty plea Aug. 25.

Since those guilty pleas, Judge Jackson said today that she had received more than 100 letters from people attesting to Smith’s character and urging leniency.

The included a letter from Attorney General Chris Koster, who was writing in a “personal capacity,” said Smith lawyer Richard Greenberg, and state Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington.

Other letters came from disadvantaged students, now in college or successful careers, who credited Smith’s help when they were teens. For years, well before he first ran for office, Smith had conducted a free tutoring service to help gifted minority athletes in the region prepare for the college-entrance exams that could determine their success in snagging scholarships at top schools.

Greenberg also detailed Smith’s annual summer 3-on-3 basketball tournament that has become a street fair on the North Side, with health care and employment services, as well as his role as co-founder of the Confluence Academy charter school.

But Goldsmith, in arguing for a stiffer prison sentence, read from the transcripts of the tapes–most of them from early this summer–that recorded Smith’s continued fervor in lying to federal investigators.

Goldsmith said he was particularly disturbed by Smith’s proposals during those taped conversations to blame the campaign missteps on a campaign aide, Artie Harris, who had committed suicide in 2007.

Right before she imposed her sentence, Jackson observed that the supportive letters, Smith’s community activities–and the incriminating tapes–painted two contrasting portraits of the 35-year-old man standing before her.

“You touched a lot of people’s lives…I don’t doubt that the remorse is real,” the judge said.

But after hearing and reading the evidence against him, Jackson added, “A lot of people are wondering: ‘Who is the real Jeff Smith?'”

Smith laments “shameful episode”

For his part, Smith admitted in court that “I put myself here in this courtroom this morning–not the FEC, the FBI…no one but me.”

Referring to the actions in the 2004 congressional campaign, Smith said, “I certainly didn’t suspect that this would be the beginning and the end of my career.” Smith added, “I wanted any advantage I could get.”

Smith acknowledged that “I misled investigators and conspired with others. I loved my job and thought that I could keep it if I weathered the storm.”

Instead, said Smith grimly, “I squandered my career and my reputation.”

He said he particularly regretted the disillusionment he had caused for thousands of supporters, and his family’s embarrassment and shame.

No date was set for Smith to report to prison. But Goldsmith said that typically, the prison term begins within 60 days of sentencing.

Outside the courtroom, Smith called the case “a shameful episode in my life…. My period of confinement will not be easy.”

After serving his sentence, Smith said he hoped to be able to continue to be active in the St. Louis community and to make a difference. He thanked the hundreds of people who wrote letters on his behalf.

Smith also said he hopes people would judge him or anyone else “not by the worst moments of their lives caught on tape” but on “the totality” of their achievements.

During Brown’s sentencing, his lawyer, Art Margulis called the whole affair “a monumental lapse in judgment.” He also noted how cooperative Brown was with the FBI when agents showed up at his door on June 1.

His lawyer noted that Brown not only resigned from the Legislature but was disbarred and has resigned from the board of trustees at a college in Illinois.

In the courtroom, Brown apologized and said “I had several opportunities” to halt the illegal activities but did not. Brown did not speak to reporters outside the courtroom.

Goldsmith praised Brown, saying, “I can honestly tell you that I have never been involved in a case with this kind of cooperation.” He said when the FBI approached Brown, he immediately “did everything the agents asked of him. He understood what he had done was wrong.”

Jackson said she would have been tempted to sentence Brown to prison if it weren’t for lobbying by the U.S. attorney’s office, “I would not hesitate to send you to prison,” the judge said. “I really do expect lawyers to tell the truth.”

Goldsmith said at a news conference after all the sentencings that federal authorities hope one message gets across to every public official in Missouri: “We are not going to tolerate these kinds of corruption. The people deserve better.”

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