Local legislators ‘heartbroken’ over resignations


Missouri’s Jewish legislators are reeling after the news that two of their colleagues, State Sen. Jeff Smith and State Rep. Steve Brown, both pleaded guilty in federal court last week to conspiracy to obstruct justice and the same day announced their resignations from office.

Smith and Brown were two of Missouri’s six Jewish state legislators.


Smith and Brown admitted to the court that they lied to federal investigators about their involvement in a smear campaign during the 2004 congressional race against Russ Carnahan. The Federal Election Commission investigated Smith’s 2004 campaign, but Smith and Brown denied involvement and the case was closed in 2007. Investigators reopened the case last December, when, according to media reports, Milton “Skip” Ohlsen revealed he had secretly taped conversations, which now show Smith and Brown lied to investigators.

Smith pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice; Brown pleaded guilty to one. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail and a fine of $250,000. Sentencing was set for Nov. 10.

Outside the Thomas Eagleton Federal Courthouse downtown on Aug. 25, Smith apologized for his actions. “I apologize first and foremost to my constituents. I apologize to my colleagues in the Senate. I apologize to Congressman Russ Carnahan for the conduct described earlier and most of all I apologize to my family for not living up to what they expected of me or what I expected of myself,” he said.

Brown also expressed remorse for his actions. “I had a severe error in judgment and I did something that was wrong and I’m prepared to accept responsibility for that. I do take full responsibility for my actions.”

Rep. Jake Zimmerman, D-Olivette, said he had known Smith and Brown since before both he and they had been elected to office. He said he was heartbroken by the situation and “never would have expected this.”

“My feeling is one of sadness,” he said. “It’s a terrible story. I would have expected better of my friends and my colleagues. Trying to reconcile this story with what I have known of them as people and as leaders is tough.”

He said he hoped that in the end somehow a measure of good may come from these events for the Jewish community.

“I think it’s a tremendous disappointment for the Jewish community. We’ve had this bumper crop of young public servants from our community and to see two of them fall from grace so abruptly is a tragedy,” he said. “I think it’s a moment for sadness and introspection for all of us, not just those who did wrong.”

Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said the episode came as a shock. “I was heartbroken over it. These were two people who I knew differently than what we’ve come to find out about their actions,” she said. “I think these are basically good people who made some pretty significant mistakes and will suffer the consequences of those mistakes in judgment.”

Rep. Jason Kander, D-Kansas City, said one important lesson is that while Brown and Smith were Jewish, there was not an anti-Semitic backlash.

“Obviously it’s disappointing in numerous ways,” he said. “But perhaps the slim silver lining is the fact that we finally live in an age where their being Jewish was not considered an important part of the story by a single reporter. A generation ago, that would certainly have been talked about.”

Rep. Rachel Storch, Missouri’s other Jewish legislator, did not return calls seeking comment.

Zimmerman expressed hope that new Jewish legislative leaders will not be afraid to step up and answer the calling to public service. “It’s not like there is a shortage of talent in our community,” he said. “But the failure of one of us diminishes all of us.”

Zimmerman also noted that he still considers the pair his friends despite not approving of their actions.

“You don’t lose a friend because your friend makes a terrible, stupid mistake,” he said. “It is not my job to support it. It is not my job to condone it. But it is also not my job to abandon them in time of need.”

Dr. Ira Kodner, Solon and Bettie Gershman Professor of Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine and director for the Center for the Study of Ethics and Human Values at Wash U., which the university recently announced will close in June 2010, said that it can be easy in positions of power to lose one’s sense of responsibility.

“Someone in politics – I think that they are so sought after by the public and they become so imbued with being elected to office that they lose insight as to the implications of their behavior,” said Kodner.

He noted that during his tenure as a state senator, Smith, who also had taught at the university, had served on a panel at the ethics center on the responsibilities of elected officials to their constituency. The panel also featured journalist Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. “Bernstein threw down the challenge that people had lost faith in the political system because there was so much dishonesty in the system,” Kodner said.

Schupp said that while the legislature will go back to normal, there is a lesson to learned.

“Historically, there have been people who have done misdeeds and had to resign or have been forced to step down for one reason or another. The state and the party will both go on and move forward. In the big picture and the big scheme of things this is just a blip on the screen. We’ll survive it,” she said. “While it’s disappointing, I think it’s a reminder to each of us of the responsibilities we hold in office.”

Managing Editor Mike Sherwin contributed to this report.