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Government, Politics & Issues

Former Rep. Steve Brown moves on from 'life I wanted to lead'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 31, 2011 - Two years ago Wednesday, two FBI agents showed up on then-state Rep. Steve Brown's Clayton doorstep.

And within minutes, the dual careers that Brown had been building for himself -- as a lawyer and up-and-coming Democratic politician -- were destroyed.

'That's the end, right there,'' says Brown, in his first interview since that visit.

The FBI's presence set in motion a series of activities that led to federal obstruction-of-justice felony charges levied in the summer of 2009 against Brown, then-state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, and Nick Adams, a former campaign worker.

The two officials attracted headlines for weeks. Smith subsequently was sent to prison. Adams and Brown were given probation, but Brown also had to surrender his law license.

Smith is now out of prison and in the midst of a somewhat high-profile rehabilitation. He has been working as a political consultant, is writing a book and has discussed his political and prison experiences in interviews on TV, radio and in print.

Not so for Brown, who outside of the courtroom has kept silent.

Since completing his probation in mid-February, Brown says he's been focusing on his family -- he is married, with two young children -- and rebuilding some sort of professional life. At the moment, he's helping his brother's business.

His months of quiet, says Brown, were largely therapeutic. "I wanted to make sure that I had the proper perspective," he explains. "That my head was clear, that I gather my thoughts prior to going on the record."

He's willing to discuss the matter now, says Brown, in part to correct what he believes have been mischaracterizations by Smith.

But Brown also believes his story can serve as a cautionary tale to others who may let their love of politics allow them to get swept inadvertantly into illegal activity.

"These things snowball," Brown says. "You don't get there in huge steps. You get there in a million little steps."

In his case, he says, "We set out to do something legitimate. ... It was, for a long time, hard to take that three smart people went down in this crazy way."

Classic Case: Coverup Becomes The Crime

Compared to the controversies that often roil campaigns and public figures, the cause of the problems that wrecked two promising political careers seems trivial.

During Smith's failed 2004 bid for Congress, the trio allowed illegal coordination in what was supposed to be independent financing and distribution of disparaging fliers against a Democrat rival (and eventual victor), now-U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

Smith's campaign knew, and assisted, the efforts of Democratic activist Milton "Skip" Ohlsen, who conducted the mailings and ran a companion website with money raised by Brown. (Ohlsen is in prison on unrelated charges.)

Such a campaign misstep, if substantiated, usually results in a fine. But what got Smith, Brown and Adams into serious hot water were their attempts to mislead or lie to the Federal Election Commission -- and later, in Smith's case, the FBI -- about the campaign's involvement.

In short, what wrecked their lives was the cover-up.

"Am I angry? I am upset with myself," says Brown. "I view myself as a smarter, better, stronger person and lawyer -- I'm upset with myself that I didn't stop this thing.''

He adds wryly, "This wasn't Watergate. You're not going to get 'All the President's Men' out of this. It's stupid, and it's milk toast."

Brown offers his scathing self-assessment as he sits at his dining room table -- the same spot, he adds, where he first met Ohlsen seven years ago.

Politics Long Part Of Brown's Past

Brown, 44, comes from a politically active family -- and long had harbored the dream of a political career.

A graduate of Ladue High School and Denison University, Brown snagged an internship right out of college with Missouri's most powerful member of the Congress at the time: U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-St. Louis.

That summer posting turned into a real job that Brown held for about a year. It was a key year, because Brown got a front-row seat to watch Gephardt's political star shoot up when the party's two top Democrats -- including House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas -- got caught up in ethics charges.

By 1991, Brown had moved on to newly elected U.S. Rep. Joan Kelly Horn, D-Ladue, for whom he also worked for about a year. Horn lost her re-election in 1992. Brown by then was in law school, graduating in 1995 from Washington University.

After stints with some local firms, Brown in 1998 finally achieved his goal of snagging a job with then-Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon. Off and on, Brown spent a decade as an assistant attorney general, much of it working out of Nixon's St. Louis office.

The "off'' was during his quests for public office, when he had to step down from his job. In 2002, Brown ran for the state House but lost by 28 votes to fellow Democrat Sam Page.

Brown's campaign manager was Jeff Smith, a Washington University graduate student who had been recommended by a mutual friend.

By early in 2004, Brown was taking another leave from his job to manage Nixon's bid for a fourth term.

With no serious challenger to Nixon, Brown had time to help out Smith, who was among a crowd of Democrats seeking to succeed Gephardt, who was retiring after 28 years in the Missouri House and two failed bids for the White House.

Independent Expenditures Need Careful Planning

Brown says that he and Smith earlier had discussed the idea of Brown heading up an independent-expenditure effort on Smith's behalf.

Campaigns in both parties have increasingly been relying on such operations, which also carry some risks.

Any group or individual can run an independent-expenditure effort on any candidate's behalf. Such operations do not have to comply with the donation restrictions imposed on candidates or their campaigns. They also don't have to be reported on a candidate's regular campaign-donation reports.

But independent-expenditure activities have to be truly independent -- with no coordination or knowledge between the operation and the campaign. If so, such activities are illegal.

That's why accusations of illegal coordination often emerge, for example, when a national party swoops in with TV or radio spots on behalf of a candidate or to attack their rival. The opposing camp usually claims there's no way that the benefiting candidate was unaware.

In the case of Brown and Smith, conducting an independent-expenditure operation legally could be tricky because the two were -- at the time -- close friends and often sharing campaign matters.

As Brown tells it, sometime in the spring or early summer of 2004, he got a call from someone in the Smith campaign -- Brown says he can't recall whether it was Smith, Adams or another staffer -- who said they were sending over someone who could conduct the independent operation.

That someone, says Brown, was Ohlsen. "At some point, Skip slinks up to somebody in the (Smith) campaign ... says he wants to help,'' recalls Brown. "Skip was sort of portraying himself as a top-flight general consultant who had the ability to do mail, to do phone stuff. He had the computers. ... He had the equipment to do the media stuff, and he had the relationships."

Brown's job was to find the money from Smith supporters "who wanted to give more, could give more," than the donation limit. Brown did his part of the job, raising the money.

Ohlsen And The Fec

In July 2004, Smith and another candidate, Joan Barry, held a news conference to raise the issues of Carnahan's missed votes and absences in the state House.

Soon, thousands of would-be voters in the 3rd Congressional District received mailers raising the same issues against Carnahan. The mailer identified its sponsoring group as Voters for Truth.

The mailer and the website, which repeated the same accusations, upset the Carnahan campaign enough that someone called the Smith campaign. Carnahan also filed a complaint with the FEC alleging coordination.

The real problems began later, in 2005 or 2006, when Ohlsen called Brown to tell him that he had been subpoenaed by the FEC to discuss his involvement.

Says Brown: "I should have said, 'Skip, do whatever you have to do.'"

Instead, Brown talks to Ohlsen twice that day and exhorts him not to mention Smith or Brown. "The gist of my conversation is that he's got to deny my and Jeff's involvement," Brown says.

Brown also told Ohlsen that his cooperation could lead to future campaign work. As Brown recalls, "Take care of us, we'll take care of you."

Says Brown now: "From a legal standpoint, I went too far when I offered benefits."

Unbeknowst to Brown, Ohlsen taped both of those conversations.

Ohlsen tells the truth to the FEC, but his testimony is deemed so rambling that its investigators question his reliability -- and say so in the final report.

The FEC never questions Brown and instead states in its final report that it could not find Brown -- a fact that surprised any reader with any knowledge of area politics.

Brown says that he would have told the FEC the truth if he had been questioned.

In any case, the FEC report comes out in late 2007 and states it had no proof of any Smith campaign involvement. But Brown was disturbed by the report's inclusion of the sworn affidavit from Smith, swearing that he had no knowledge of any coordination.

Brown says that he had known earlier that Smith had made some presumably false statements to the FEC, but that the report marked the first time he was aware of what Smith had signed.

"As a lawyer, I know you don't file false affidavits anywhere," Brown says. "That's the point of no return."

Still, the case seemed to be over. "At that point, it pretty much fell off my radar,'' Brown says.

By that point, Smith had won election to the state Senate. In fall 2008, Brown wins election to the Missouri House.

Although in the minority in the Republican-controlled chamber, Brown enjoys his first session, which ends in mid-May.

'No Choice' But To Wear A Wire

Two weeks later, on June 1, 2009, Brown was at home with his two young children when the FBI shows up. While searching Ohlsen's residence for evidence in an unrelated case, the FBI had found those taped phone calls between Brown and Ohlsen about the FEC.

Shocked, Brown says he told the truth to the FBI when they asked about the improper coordination between the campaign and Ohlsen, and Brown's apparent effort to persuade Ohlsen to lie about it.

While on the doorstep, Brown says, the agents broached the topic of whether Brown would wear a wire to tape his conversations with Smith.

"Obviously, I did not want to do it,'' Brown says. "I felt dirty, that I would be betraying Jeff, lots of people."

But after discussing the matter with his lawyer and his family, Brown says he realized he had no choice.

"If you are talking to the FBI and the U.S. attorney, there are no good choices," Brown says.

Brown says it was traumatic when his lawyer, Art Margulis, made it clear that he would have to resign his elected post and would lose his law license. Their work now, the lawyer said, was in keeping Brown out of jail.

Brown also had to tell his wife, a fellow lawyer, whom he had kept in the dark until the FBI visit. "It was an emotional time. It was an emotional time for me, for my wife," he says.

Brown's taped conversations included Smith's discussions with Brown and Adams about keeping the coordination secret. The tapes also captured the last face-to-face talk between Smith and Brown, which Brown recalls was a heated conversation in the Central West End.

In his first meeting with the FBI in late June, Smith initially denied any campaign coordination. But by mid-July 2009, Smith had become aware of Brown's tapes and listened to them in the FBI office.

Smith soon pleaded guilty to two felony counts. Brown and Adams each submitted guilty pleas to one count apiece. All three made statements of contrition at their sentencing in November 2009.

Brown has not spoken to Smith since that last taped conversation in the Central West End, in which they argued over the federal probe and what to do about it.

"I think he clearly blames me...'I'm the guy who sent him to jail,' '' Brown says. But in truth, he adds, it was their own missteps that ended their political careers -- and Brown's legal practice.

"I didn't change a fact," Brown says. "I didn't ask him to lie on those tapes."

On the advice of his lawyer, Brown says, he turned down Smith's offer -- made through his lawyer -- to write a letter to the judge on Brown's behalf. Such a letter might make things worse, Brown says he was told.

Brown Now Looks Ahead, Offers Words of Caution

Brown hopes to someday get his law license back although he's not counting on it.

Despite their lack of contact, Brown says, he's aware that Smith is now married and is soon to be a father. "Maybe now that he's a husband and to become a father, he understands some of the things that went through my mind," Brown says.

Overall, he adds, "Most people who know Jeff and me understand that we're good people who were trying to do the right thing who got caught up in something that was stupid."

As he looks back on the federal investigation, Brown observes, "Of course I would have liked them to come up with a way to punish us and still keep our lives intact. But they believed they couldn't do that. They acted within their discretion."

Two years later, Brown admits he still has some regrets. "I clearly mourn the loss of the life that I wanted to lead, to be involved in politics and to be an elected official. I clearly mourn that life, that that life is gone."

"But largely, I've cut it loose, and I'm trying to figure out what we're going to do next," Brown says. The upside of leaving politics, he added, is that he has been spending a lot more time with his family.

His experience -- however painful -- certainly has provided perspective. Brown says his message to others still in politics, or those planning to enter the arena, is to be aware of the risks.

Politics, he says, tends to consume its participants. "You just think that is the world, that it's only thing that exists. You need to talk to somebody outside of it. Someone who has got some perspective, who will say, 'Too much risk.' "

In his case, he says he should have talked more to his wife. "One of things I should have done was to have brought her in more. I wish I had. She would have set me straight.''

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