A taped interview with a Kalamazoo, Mich. radio station virtually proves that Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., has morphed from a whistleblower into an uncooperative witness in a potential bribery investigation.
To review: Late last month, Smith said that "bribes and special deals were offered to convince members to vote yes" on the Bush administration's Medicare prescription-benefit bill. Smith is retiring from Congress at the end of this term, and his son is running for the GOP nomination to succeed him. Smith said that somebody—he wouldn't specify who, but an Associated Press report said it was "House GOP leaders," and a Smith press release issued the day after the vote seemed to hint it was House Speaker Dennis Hastert or Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson—"made offers of extensive financial campaign support and endorsements for my son Brad who is running for my seat." Smith, a fiscal conservative, resisted the offer (or offers) and voted against the Medicare bill. A few days later, Robert Novak wrote—in a column that Smith, speaking via his chief of staff, told Chatterbox was "basically accurate"—that Smith had been told Brad's campaign would receive $100,000 from "business interests" if Smith voted yes. If that really happened, then Smith was the recipient of an unambiguous attempted bribe, punishable under federal law.
Until this past Thursday, Smith stood by his accusations, but declined to identify the person (or persons) he was accusing, except to say that it wasn't Hastert, Thompson, or Majority Leader Tom DeLay. For his part, Hastert is quoted saying in the Dec. 6 New York Times (in a beat-sweetener by Carl Hulse about Hastert's emergence as a forceful legislative leader), "[W]e didn't give away a dime."
Smith backed off on Dec. 4, just as he was starting to feel some heat from the growing prospect of a Justice Department investigation. "No specific reference was made to money," he said. "I was told that my vote could result in interested groups giving substantial and aggressive campaign 'support' and 'endorsements.' "
Chatterbox pointed out yesterday that Smith's new line contradicts what he said earlier about "extensive financial campaign support" and his son's recollection, as related to the Lansing State Journal, that Smith had told him "interest groups and key Republicans" had offered "financial contributions and endorsements." Smith tried to finesse this by telling the Associated Press that his recollection that money had been offered had been "technically incorrect."
But what about the $100,000? It's pretty hard to see ambiguity in the offer of so specific an amount of money. And Smith was on record confirmingNovak's $100,000 figure; he'd relayed the message to Chatterbox that Novak's column was "basically accurate." Would Smith try to argue that his chief of staff had garbled what he said? Would Smith say that the qualifier "basically" meant, "no money, and certainly not $100,000"?
That sliver of wiggle room has now been eliminated by Kevin Vandenbroek of WKZO radio in Kalamazoo. According to a report last night by WOOD TV, a Grand Rapids station, Smith confirmed the $100,000 offer in a taped phone interview with Vandenbroek on Dec. 1:
And so the first offer was to give [Brad] $100,000-plus for his campaign, and endorsements by national leadership, and I said no, I'm going to stick to my guns on what I think is right for the constituents in my district.
Unless Smith wants to argue he was suffering from hallucinations, he needs to retreat from his retreat. Otherwise he's going to look like Frankie "Five Angels" Pentangeli in Godfather II, interrupting his congressional testimony on mob activity when he sees that the Corleones have flown his brother in from Sicily. "I don't—I never knew no godfather," Pentangeli blurts out. "I got my own family, Senator." Smith, of course, is no criminal, and whoever bribed him is surely no mobster threatening murder. Otherwise the analogy resonates. But there's still time for Smith to look like Terry Malloy, the whistle-blowing longshoreman portrayed by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, who testifies against his corrupt union boss and leads a heroic march onto the docks as music swells from Leonard Bernstein's score. That's a much classier way to end a career.
[ Update, 5 p.m.: Chatterbox has now listened to Smith's taped interview with Kevin Vandenbroek of WKZO. (To hear it yourself, click