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Government, Politics & Issues

Smith uses own money to pay federal fine, prepares to report Jan. 5 to prison

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2009 - Former state Sen. Jeff Smith said Wednesday that he used money that he'd been saving since 7th grade, when he was paid to referee soccer games, to pay his $40,000 fine imposed by a federal judge as part of his sentence on obstruction of justice charges related to his failed 2004 bid for Congress.

Smith said in an interview with the Beacon that he didn't have to tap family or friends for the cash because he was a "compulsive saver/cheapskate.''

Smith paid the fine last week -- about the same time that he found out that he was going to serve his year and a day sentence at a federal prison in Manchester, Ky., which has a minimum security camp.

He is to report to the prison on Jan. 5.

In the meantime, Smith is working on a book -- he's got a draft half done, he said -- and spending time with family, friends and "former colleagues (in the Legislature) who have been wonderful friends/sources of support."

Smith had hoped, and expected, to serve his sentence at his preferred site in a federal prison in Marion, Ill. Federal Judge Carol Jackson, who imposed the sentence, had recommended Marion.

"Sure, I'm disappointed,'' Smith said in the interview, conducted largely via text message. "Will be much harder on my family and friends to drive 7 hours (to Kentucky) than 2 hours to Marion."

But Smith emphasized, via text and a follow-up phone interview, that he was not complaining about his plight.

Smith also reaffirmed his remorse over the missteps that are landing him in prison and cost him a promising political career. He pleaded guilty in August to two federal felonies. His troubles stemmed from an affidavit he signed in 2006, swearing to the Federal Election Commission that he had no knowledge or involvement in the production and circulation of a 2004 flyer disparaging a rival for the congressional seat, now-U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

In fact, Smith had been aware of the man behind the flier, Milton “Skip” Ohlsen III, and had arranged for him to get in contact with then-Smith friend, local lawyer Steve Brown. Brown had raised money for Ohlsen from a couple of Smith's major donors.

Also in 2006, Smith got elected to the state Senate.

The FBI later got involved in the flyer investigation, during an unrelated probe of Ohlsen, and snagged Brown and Smith. (Brown, who was elected to the state House in 2008, also pleaded guilty to a federal obstruction of justice charge, and was sentenced to probation. Brown got a lighter sentence because he had cooperated with the FBI and helped them tape Smith's incriminating statements against himself.)

During a radio interview this week on KDHX, Smith said he was among a group of six people -- most of them tied to his 2004 campaign -- who had agreed to continue to deny their involvement in the flyer. The gradual decision of several to tell the truth, some under FBI prodding, led federal investigators to Smith.

His book will lay out the entire, unfortunate episode, he said.  The time between his sentencing and prison arrival "has disciplined me to record all of it on paper,'' Smith said.

Will his prison experience be part of the book as well? "Epilogue,'' Smith replied.

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