St. Louis – Two St. Louis-area Democratic politicians - including one considered a rising star in the party - and a party operative pleaded guilty on Tuesday to lying to cover up illegal campaign activities in a 2004 primary for U.S. Representative.
Former State Senator Jeff Smith and former State Representative Steve Brown submitted their resignations Tuesday. Brown advised Smith's 2004 campaign, in a race eventually won by Russ Carnahan. Nicholas Adams, the third man to plead guilty, was the campaign's treasurer.
The three men admitted to lying to investigators from the Federal Election Commission who were looking into allegations of illegal coordination between Smith's campaign and an independent organization called Voters for Truth, a group led by Democratic operative Milton "Skip" Ohlsen. Ohlsen is not identified in court documents, but his identity was known to the FEC. The investigation began when Carnahan filed a complaint with the FEC. In September 2004, Smith told the FEC he did not know about the coordination, when he had in fact approved it, and told Brown to raise money for Voters for Truth.
In November 2006, Ohlsen was subpoenaed to testify in the case. Brown, with Smith's knowledge, met with Ohlsen and encouraged him to lie about the coordinated activities, which included negative postcards. Ohlsen was promised the opportunity to work with Smith's political action committee if he lied - and he did. Brown and other members of the campaign, including Nicholas Adams, also lied to the FEC, which eventually dropped the investigation for lack of information.
In January 2009, the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened an investigation into the lies to the FEC. Smith, Brown and Adams met in June 2009 to discuss what they would tell the FBI if they were interviewed. Smith lied to the FBI in late June.
"This is a classic corruption case," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith. "Political candidates and elected officials owe the public their honesty and integrity above all else. The public lost out big here."
Special agent John Gillies, the special agent in charge of the FBI's St. Louis office, called the conspiracy "pure stupidity."
"You've got a PhD, you've got a J.D. from Washington University, another guy with a masters degree, and all this for what at the end of the day," he said. "Just so they could get a little bit more power, feel a little bit better about themselves that they're big shots in town. We will not tolerate this type of corruption."
Neither Gillies nor Goldsmith would say if anyone else could be charged in the 2004 campaign case. Gillies formed a special unit to root out political corruption when he arrived in St. Louis, and he said the squad is rooting out more in areas like law enforcement, contracting and regulation.
Both Brown and Smith admitted to grave errors in judgment, but Brown said he would like to get back into the political game some day.
"I want to be crystal clear, I did something wrong, and I'm not going to hide from that, but I still the body of work that I have out there, what I've done, has an indication that I have a commitment to public service," he said.
Special elections to fill Brown and Smith's seats will be November 3rd. Brown, Smith and Adams will be sentenced November 10th.