Burying the Bribe
Investigating Rep. Smith's charge is not "appropriate"?
It's been a busy week for political news—the Iowa caucuses, the State of the Union address—making it the ideal moment for the House ethics committee to announce quietly that an investigation into a bribery allegation by Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., against the House Republican leadership would have "little to go on." In a written statement, Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., said his committee was stymied by the fact that "a complaint has not been filed before the committee." As Hefley well knows, the ethics committee doesn't need a House member to file a complaint before launching an investigation. But he's poised to use that as an excuse to bury the Medicare bribe story.
Last month, Hefley said it would be "appropriate ... for the ethics committee to look into" Smith's allegation, even though Smith had clumsily retracted it. Since then, an investigation has only grown more "appropriate." What little credibility Smith's retraction had back then was undone by the emergence of two pieces of evidence. The first was a tape-recording of a pre-recantation radio interview (to listen to it, Mr. Chairman, click here) in which Smith very clearly described a "$100,000-plus" contribution to his son's campaign for Congress in exchange for his "yea" vote on the Medicare prescription bill. (Smith declined.) That meets the statutory definition of a bribe under United States Code, Title 18, Section 201, "Bribery of public officials and witnesses." The second piece of evidence was a story in the Washington Post that produced two witnesses—one of whom, Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., went on the record—who said they distinctly heard Smith say the bribe was offered by someone in the House leadership. Smith, presumably in a panic that his recantation had been shot full of holes, made a touchingly inept effort to plug them with ludicrous assertions, the most absurd of which was that he only told the radio interviewer about an offered "100,000-plus" contribution because Robert Novak had reported it that way. (See "Bob Novak Ate My Brain!")
Here's what should happen immediately: House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D.-Md., who last month called on the ethics committee to investigate the Medicare bribery allegation, but didn't formally request one, and House Democratic Leader Nany Pelosi, D.-Ca, who last month introduced a House resolution denouncing Republican tactics during the Medicare vote, including the attempted bribery of Smith, but also didn't formally request a House ethics committee investigation, should both stop grandstanding. As the New Republic pointed out in its Dec. 22 "Notebook" column, House members don't like to request ethics committee investigations concerning members of the opposite party because they fear partisan reprisal. But Hoyer and Pelosi must now request one.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.