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Jan. 8 2004 8:16 PM

Bob Novak Ate My Brain!

The Medicare bribe story gets weird.

Get ready for the third version of Rep. Nick Smith's Medicare bribery story.

Version 1—by far the most convincing—was Smith's allegation that someone in the House leadership (whom he declined to identify) had offered to give "$100,000-plus" to his son Brad's congressional campaign if he would only change his "no" vote on the Medicare prescription-drug bill to a "yes." Smith, a Michigan Republican who's decided not to run for re-election, stuck by his guns and voted "no" (on the grounds that it would create an expensive new entitlement), then spoke out angrily against these heavy-handed political tactics.

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Version 2 came into being after Chatterbox, reacting to columnist Robert Novak's report on the $100,000 offer, pointed out that it easily met the legal definition of a bribe under United States Code, Title 18, Section 201. Smith himself had used the word "bribes" to describe what occurred on the House floor the night of the vote, but either he hadn't thought through the implications, or he hadn't meant "bribes" in the non-metaphorical, alderman-goes-to-jail sense of the word. As pressure mounted for the Justice Department to investigate, Smith apparently got worried and clammed up.

Smith had expected to win kudos for being a brave man of principle. Instead, he was starting to look like an uncooperative witness in a potential criminal investigation. So, he issued a statement on Dec. 4 that said, "[N]o member of Congress made an offer of financial assistance for my son's campaign in exchange for my vote on the Medicare bill." Although "[t]he lobbying from members was intense," Smith insisted that "[n]o specific reference was made to money." Smith saw "no need for an ethics investigation, let alone a criminal investigation."

Version 2 was a recantation. That raised a question: Why would Smith say somebody tried to bribe him (citing the very specific figure of $100,000) and then later on say nobody tried to bribe him? Smith steered around that riddle by arguing that Version 1 had been misunderstood. Unfortunately, Smith had left behind a trail of earlier, easy-to-retrieve statements that seemed pretty clear. He'd written in a Nov. 23 column distributed to Michigan newspapers that he'd received "offers of extensive financial campaign support and endorsements for my son Brad." He'd spelled out the interaction more explicitly in a Dec. 1 radio interview with Kevin Vandenbroek of WKZO in Kalamazoo (to listen to it, click here):

They started out by offering the carrot, and they know what's important to every member, and what's important to me is my family and my kids. And I've term-limited myself, and so Bradley my son is running for [my congressional seat] and so the first offer was to give him $100,000-plus for his campaign and endorsement by national leadership. And I said No, I'm gonna stick to my guns on what I think is right for the constituents in my district.

Smith's public comments had left a sliver of ambiguity about who "they" were. But in private comments over dinner on the night of the vote, two Republican House members remember that Smith made clear he was talking about the Republican leadership in the House, according to a Dec. 23 story by R. Jeffrey Smith in the Washington Post. One of the two Republicans went on the record:

Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.),who was present at the dinner, recalled Smith saying it was "people from leadership" who had offered the money. He said Smith did not say who it was, but he assumed it was someone who controlled a "large leadership PAC, who can raise a hundred thousand dollars by hosting a few fundraisers."

Taken together, Smith's column, the WKZO interview, and the Post piece rendered Version 2 impossible to sustain. And so we have Version 3.

Version 3, according to news accounts of Smith's public comments back in his district earlier this week, amends Version 2 in two ways.