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Bribery, Extortion

If ever there was a case that cried out for investigation by the House ethics committee and the Justice Department, it is the evident bribery and extortion attempts applied to Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) to get him to support the House leadership and the Bush administration on the Medicare conference vote. Instead of merely lamenting roughhouse GOP tactics, it’s time for the House Democratic leadership to file an ethics complaint in the Smith case.

Abundant evidence exists that Smith, who’s retiring from Congress, was first promised $100,000 for his son Bradley’s campaign to succeed him if he voted for the Medicare bill. And, when he resisted, threats were made that Brad Smith would face a primary challenge. Smith didn’t buckle, but those who made the promises and threats deserve to be investigated for attempted bribery and extortion.

Numerous news stories and taped radio interviews by Smith himself attest to the pressure applied to him during the infamous three-hour open vote on the Medicare bill in late November. “The arm-twisting was probably as strong as I’ve ever seen it in my 16 years in the Michigan Legislature and my 11 years in Congress,” Smith told Kalamazoo radio station WKZO-AM.

“They started out by offering the carrot … $100,000 for his campaign and endorsement by national leadership. I said, ‘No, I’m gonna stick to my guns. … So what they did then is come forth with a sort of stick: ‘If you don’t change your vote — this was about 4 a.m. Saturday — then some of us are going to work to make sure your son doesn’t get to Congress.’ That kind of attack is beyond what anybody should do, so I told them to get the heck out of there. … It’s a tough situation when civility breaks down.”

Under pressure, Smith has backed off from the allegations, but they are on audiotape and they are backed up by other Members he confided in at the time. Who’s the “they” he referred to? On the tape, Smith said, “the leadership … they scrunched me between the secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, and the Speaker of the House, Denny Hastert,” but it isn’t clear whether these two were making promises and leveling threats or talking “philosophy and principle.” Various press reports say that the $100,000 was to come from “business interests,” probably pharmaceutical companies.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has called on the House floor for an ethics committee probe, but so far no Democrat has filed an actual complaint with the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Evidently, the opposition continues to observe the 1997 truce barring “political” use of the ethics process. But the Smith case deserves to be a truce-breaker.

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