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Ethics Report Hints Staff Helped Pressure Smith

A report issued last week by the House ethics committee into allegations by Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) that top Republicans tried to improperly influence his vote during a battle over a controversial Medicare bill offers rare insights into the behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Bush administration officials as they tried to push the legislation through the chamber.

Tucked deep inside the 62-page report, the investigative subcommittee, led by Reps. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), described the unusual role that two Republican staffers played in the GOP leadership’s desperate effort to convert dozens of Republican opponents of the Medicare bill to supporters.

These staffers, Dan Flynn, DeLay’s deputy chief of staff, and Jason Roe, a former press secretary for Smith who is now chief of staff to Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), were mentioned repeatedly in the Smith report.

DeLay, Smith and Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) were publicly admonished by the ethics committee for their roles in the Nov. 22, 2003, Medicare vote. The controversy arose after Smith claimed that unnamed Republicans had offered him $100,000 in contributions for his son’s Congressional campaign if he would agree to back the Medicare legislation, which the elder Smith opposed.

The ethics committee found that DeLay told Smith he would endorse his son, Brad Smith (R), who was seeking his father’s seat, if he switched his vote. In a unanimous vote, the committee determined that “this conduct could support a finding that Majority Leader DeLay violated House rules,” although the panel decided not to pursue the issue any further. DeLay said he never “knowingly violated” House rules and accepted the committee findings.

After the investigative subcommittee failed to turn up any evidence to back up his claims, Smith was admonished for making statements that hurt the reputation of the House, as well as failing to cooperate with investigators. Miller was rebuked for threatening to retaliate against Smith for voting against the Medicare prescription drug bill, a top legislative priority of President Bush and the GOP Congressional leadership.

Roe and Flynn were central to what happened between DeLay and Smith, according to the report.

Roe, who comes from a Michigan family with long ties to Smith, called the Michigan Republican at least once on the day of the Medicare vote to discuss whether Smith should change his position on the bill, even though Feeney, Roe’s current boss, was voting against it.

Smith testified that Roe told him “my son’s campaign could receive substantial and aggressive support, including support from third parties,” if he threw his support behind the Medicare bill.

According to Smith, Roe “understood from a source close to Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s office that Brad Smith could get a National Republican Congressional Committee endorsement if Representative Smith voted in favor of the legislation.”

Roe denied to investigators that he had referred to DeLay’s office in his conversations with Smith, and said that he called Smith “more out of curiosity” than anything else.

Flynn, however, testified that he had contacted Roe the day of the Medicare vote to find out if an endorsement by DeLay of Brad Smith would be enough to convince the elder Smith to change his vote. Flynn was aware that Roe had worked for Smith and said that Roe would know what the outlook was for Brad Smith in the Michigan Republican primary. Flynn testified that he “did not recall” telling Roe that DeLay would endorse Brad Smith if his father changed his vote, and further stated that he “does not believe” that he asked Roe to call the elder Smith.

Roe, for his part, said the Michigan primary “never came up” during his discussions with Flynn, and said Flynn lobbied him to get Feeney to change his vote.

Roe also said that “he was not trying to influence” Smith’s vote by calling him, and added that he was not asked to call the six-term lawmaker by anyone and was not a go-between on a potential NRCC endorsement for Brad Smith. Reps. Smith and Feeney both told the investigative subcommittee that they believed Roe’s assertion that he was not trying to alter Smith’s vote.

The ethics committee found no evidence that Flynn was operating at DeLay’s request, and Flynn was not accused of breaking House rules, although investigators were clearly concerned by his actions. “Nonetheless, in the view of the Investigative Subcommittee, it is not appropriate for Congressional staff to research the status of Congressional election contests for the purpose of obtaining information to influence a Member’s vote on pending legislation,” the committee wrote of Flynn.

Flynn declined to comment for this article.

NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) told the investigative subcommittee “that there had been no consideration of an endorsement for Brad Smith in the Michigan District Seven primary and that he had no knowledge of an offer of an endorsement being made.” Traditionally, party leaders try to stay out of competitive primaries. Brad Smith was defeated in the Wolverine State GOP contest on Aug. 3.

The ethics committee also speculated that “the controversy may have been utilized for political purposes by Brad Smith to promote the cause of his congressional candidacy, with the possible result of further exacerbating the harm caused by Representative Smith’s publication of substantially unsupportable allegations.”

The panel criticized both Smith and Roe for linking a potential NRCC endorsement and the Medicare vote. “Any statements made by [Smith] in any setting related to an endorsement or other support for his son by the [NRCC] appear to have been speculation or exaggeration on the part of [Smith] and speculation on the part of Jason Roe, a former employee of Representative Smith,” the committee wrote.

Roe said he would not discuss the findings of the Smith report. “I have no comment on the report and am comfortable letting it speak for itself,” Roe wrote in an e-mail Friday.

DeLay said he approached Smith early in the evening of Nov. 21, hours before the contentious three-hour Medicare vote began, and offered to endorse Brad Smith if the elder Smith voted in favor of the Medicare legislation, the report stated.

According to Smith, DeLay made no offer of money, although the Michigan Republican “stated that he would have associated the offer of an endorsement [from DeLay] with willingness to provide financial assistance in the form of contributions to his son’s campaign.”

DeLay’s recollections of his interaction with Smith that night are “materially consistent” with that offered by Smith, but the Texas Republican told the investigative subcommittee that he didn’t recall speaking with Smith before voting began at 3 a.m.

DeLay said he wouldn’t have targeted Smith before that moment because he “did not believe that Representative Smith was open to persuasion to change his vote,” and added that it was Smith himself who “first raised the subject of his son’s campaign.”

DeLay also said that Smith had approached him personally “several weeks or months prior to the Medicare vote” about endorsing his son.

But once DeLay actually offered an endorsement of Brad Smith if Smith switched his vote, DeLay said the Michigan Republican rejected it.

Smith, however, claimed that he put DeLay’s offer together with his conversations with Roe and decided to reconsider his decision, as well as consulting his son on the matter.

Brad Smith testified that his father had told him of a potential NRCC endorsement and financial support from the pharmaceutical industry if he reversed his decision on the Medicare bill.

Several GOP lawmakers who were present during a dinner at the Hunan Dynasty restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast on the night of Nov. 21, including Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) and Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), all related to investigators that Smith told them of an offer of an NRCC endorsement for Brad Smith at that time, although no mention was made of DeLay at the dinner.

Tancredo also said that he had a “clear and specific” recollection of Smith mentioning the offer of $100,000 in campaign contributions for Brad Smith is return for the elder Smith’s support on the Medicare bill.

Smith later told the investigative subcommittee that, “regardless of what he might have said at Hunan Dynasty or in subsequent media comments, no one in fact offered him $100,000 or any other specific sum of money” in exchange for his vote.

Roe also related another colorful detail. He said Smith called him the day after the vote and said Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) had offered to help his daughter “find a job as an actress in Hollywood.” Smith said he could not remember any conversation with Roe after the vote, and Dreier denied making such an offer to Smith.

House Democrats, led by Minority Leader nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and public watchdog groups pounced Friday on the findings outlined in the ethics committee report, charging that revelations about DeLay are part of a broader pattern of GOP corruption.

“The rebuke of Tom DeLay by the Ethics Committee is yet another ethical cloud hanging over the Capitol,” said Pelosi in a statement released by her office. “Mr. DeLay’s offer to trade political support for a vote for the shameful Medicare prescription drug bill is completely inappropriate.”

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