Did top Republicans, desperate to adopt a Medicare drug benefit, actually solicit a congressman’s support by attempting bribery and blackmail? The Justice Department says it is reviewing this matter, even as the media have moved on. This is serious business, worthy of the close attention of prosecutors, journalists, and citizens alike.
The House of Representatives’ Medicare deliberations were unprecedented. At 3:00 A.M. on Saturday, November 22, House members were given 15 minutes to vote on the new, 20-year, $2 trillion drug entitlement. Two votes shy of passing the bill, GOP leaders abused House rules and kept the vote open for almost three hours. This chicanery set the seamy stage for GOP arm twisting by House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and even Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who violated custom and trolled the House floor for converts. The bill’s Republican critics felt extreme pressure to vote “aye.”
As columnist Robert Novak reported November 27, Rep. Nick Smith (R., Mich.) said he was told on the House floor (he won’t say by whom) that if he switched and backed the Medicare bill, “business interests” would provide $100,000 to his son’s campaign to replace him in Congress.
This looks like bribery. Rep. Smith said as much in a newspaper column the day after the vote. “[B]ecause the leadership did not have the votes to prevail,” Rep. Smith wrote, “this vote was held open for a record two-hours-and-51 minutes as bribes and special deals were offered to convince members to vote yes.”
U.S. Code Title 18, Section 201 (b) (1)(A) says that bribery occurs when someone “offers or promises any public official or any person who has been selected to be a public official to give anything of value to any other person or entity, with intent to influence any official act…”
When Rep. Smith admirably stood his ground, Republicans changed tactics and said they would torpedo his son’s candidacy.
“Other members and groups made offers of extensive financial campaign support and endorsements for my son, Brad, who is running for my seat,” Rep. Smith wrote in a November 23 newspaper column. “They also made threats of working against Brad if I voted no.” After the bill passed without Smith’s help, California Rep. Duke Cunningham and other GOP members reportedly told Rep. Smith that Brad was “dead meat.” In a November 24 press release, Rep. Smith lamented: “My only regret is that it [his ‘No’ vote] might have hurt my son.”
This reeks of extortion, which the federal Hobbs Act –U.S. Code Title 18, Section 1951 (b) (2)–defines as obtaining someone’s consent through fear.
Rep. Smith’s chief of staff, Kurt Schmautz, told Slate’s Timothy Noah that Novak’s reporting was “basically accurate.” Rep. Smith’s contemporaneous column and press releases soon after the vote similarly describe these events.
In an interview with John Gizzi and David Freddoso of Human Events, Rep. Smith again discussed a $100,000 figure. Freddoso recalls speaking with Rep. Smith the week of November 24. In “Stalwarts Fought Drug Bill ’til Dawn,” posted December 5 on the conservative weekly’s website, Gizzi and Freddoso reported that the congressman said he was told his son would receive “almost unlimited financial support, plus some nationally recognized names to endorse him,” if Rep. Smith voted yes. “This comes after [Brad] sold part of his property to put his own $100,000 in his campaign,” Rep. Smith continued.
A December 1 radio interview is even more revealing. Nine days after the Medicare vote, Nick Smith spoke with Kevin Vandenbroek of WKZO-AM 590 in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
“Bradley, my son, is running for office, and so the first offer was to give him $100,000-plus for his campaign and endorsement by national leadership,” Rep. Smith says in the interview. When he said he would “stick to my guns” with his “No” vote, Smith recalls, “what they [presumably GOP leaders] did then is come forth with sort of the stick, and they said, ‘Well, if you don’t change your vote,’–this was about 4 a.m. Saturday morn –’then some of us are going to work to make sure your son doesn’t get to Congress.’ And that kind of personal attack is just sort of beyond what anybody should do.”
Despite these specific details, Rep. Smith tune appeared to change two days later.
“I want to make it clear that no member of Congress made an offer of financial assistance for my son’s campaign in exchange for my vote on the Medicare bill,” he said in a December 4 statement. “No specific reference was made to money.”
Rep. Smith’s dramatically conflicting accounts trouble Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “As you know,” Sloan wrote Attorney General John Ashcroft December 8, “should a witness make such a complete recantation, in other circumstances, an investigation into witness tampering and obstruction of justice might result. The fact that Mr. Smith may have been pressured by public officials is all the more reason to investigate. The question now is, not only who attempted to bribe and extort Mr. Smith, but who…pressured him to back away from his earlier representations?”
Bribery, extortion, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice. Such charges, encircling key Republicans, should rivet Americans, outrage the Right and trigger klaxons throughout the Justice Department.
Rep. Smith is the good guy here. Despite strong-arm tactics and challenges to his son’s political ambitions, he maintained his vote against a massive, new federal program that GOP congressional leaders, Secretary Thompson and President Bush craved. The question is: Did their persuasion efforts include cash promises to help Brad Smith’s bid to keep his father’s House seat in the family? Rep. Smith, not surprisingly, may not wish to charge his Republican colleagues with criminal conduct. That is the Justice Department’s job. The next step is for federal prosecutors to relieve Rep. Smith of his reticence and ask him, under oath, who said what to whom as the House voted early that Saturday morning.
–Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.