Two St. Louis-area lawmakers resigned from the Missouri General Assembly on Tuesday after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice charges in connection with a federal campaign finance probe.
Freshman Democratic state Sen. Jeff Smith — viewed by many as a rising star in political circles — pleaded guilty to two federal counts of obstruction of justice tied to his failed 2004 congressional campaign.
State Rep. Steve Brown, who served as an aide to Smith in the 2004 campaign, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to obstruct justice. Brown also was serving his first term in office.
“It is regrettable that two public servants, who had promising careers, involved themselves in this kind of situation,” said state Democratic Party spokesman Ryan Hobart. “It just goes to show that no one is above the law.”
In a letter of apology to supporters, Smith admitted that he lied to Federal Election Commission investigators about an independent effort to benefit his congressional campaign, narrowly won by Democrat Russ Carnahan, who still holds the seat. Carnahan is the son of former Gov. Mel Carnahan and U.S. Senator Jean Carnahan.
Federal law prohibits any coordination between a congressional campaign and outside, independent efforts on behalf of that campaign.
“When the independent operator requested funding, I authorized a close friend to raise money for the effort, and my press secretary provided public information about my opponent’s voting record,” Smith said in the letter. “I withheld my knowledge of these facts during the Federal Election Commission’s 2004 investigation, misleading investigators and filing a false affidavit.”
Smith’s 2004 campaign manager, Nick Adams, also pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice.
The cases against Smith and Brown apparently are unrelated to an ongoing FBI probe of legislative practices in the Statehouse. No charges have been filed in that probe.
But some lawmakers have told The Kansas City Star that federal agents have conducted numerous interviews in connection with an investigation into pay-for-play schemes in which legislative favors are betstowed only after campaign donations are made.
Carnahan’s campaign had initiated the scrutiny of Smith’s congressional campaign after filing a Federal Election Commission complaint. In 2007, the commission announced it was not taking any action against Smith, saying federal laws were not broken.
But after the case was re-opened in 2009, Smith said he talked to Brown and Adams and encouraged them to again mislead investigators.
“I wrongly believed we could conceal my campaign’s coordination with the independent operator,” Smith told a federal judge during Tuesday’s court hearing in St. Louis. “I’m guilty as charged and take full responsibility for my mistake.”
As part of a plea agreement, federal prosecutors will not to pursue further charges against Smith.
Sentencing for Smith, 35, and Brown, 42, is set for Nov. 10. They could face up to 20 years in prison on each count and a fine of $250,000. Prosecutors have recommended a reduced sentence for Brown for his cooperation.
“This event has humbled me,” Smith said in his letter to constituents. “I have done some significant introspection, and that has been the hardest part, coming to terms with my own poor judgments and mistakes.”
Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, accepted resignation letters from both lawmakers and called a special election for Nov. 3 to fill the vacancies. He characterized the resignations as “both necessary and appropriate” and said the lawmakers’ actions amounted to a “violation of the public’s trust.”
Jackson County Democratic Committee chair Steve Bough called the guilty pleas and resignations “just another embarassment” for the party.
But Bough and other party members said they did not expect the damage to be long-lasting. The resignations come more than a year before the next election and did not involve conduct while either man held public office.
“It just puts another suspicion on all elected officials when two of them are caught not following the rules,” said state Rep. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat and House minority leader.
In the Capitol on Tuesday, state Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, the other Democratic representative from St. Louis’ two main Senate districts, called Smith “innovative” and “forward-thinking” and said his resignation would be a loss to the Senate.
Smith also taught political science at Washington University in St. Louis and was a Phi Beta Kappa and National Merit Scholar at the University of North Carolina.
“Jeff was a very active senator and he represented his portion of the city quite well,” Wright-Jones said.
Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, a Republican from Farmington, said Smith made mistakes, but called him a reasonable person who encouraged bipartisanship.
Nixon’s call for a special election allows Democratic committee members in St. Louis to open discussions for replacements for Smith and Brown. The district is heavily Democratic and the committee’s selections are expected to win the seats easily.
Among potential Democratic nominees for the Senate seat are state Reps. Talibdin El-Amin, Jamilah Nasheed and Rachel Storch, according to political observers. Possible Republican nominees are not yet known.