The FBI takes on the Medicare bribe.

The FBI takes on the Medicare bribe.

The FBI takes on the Medicare bribe.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Feb. 26 2004 5:52 PM

FBI Examines Medicare Bribe

Let's hope they didn't only just get started.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating Nick Smith's accusation that someone in the House leadership attempted to bribe him into voting for the Medicare prescription-drug bill, according to Roll Call's John Bresnahan. It isn't clear when the investigation began. It should have begun the day Robert Novak reported in his Nov. 27 column, "On the House floor, Nick Smith was told business interests would give his son $100,000 in return for his father's vote." (The money would have been for son Brad's campaign to replace Smith, who will retire from Congress at the end of this year. Smith refused the money and voted against the bill.)

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Nov. 27 was Thanksgiving, and many federal workers took that entire holiday weekend off. So, let's be generous and say the FBI should have started investigating Smith's allegation on Dec. 1. On that day, Chatterbox pointed out (drawing on the expertise of Marc Miller, a Washington attorney who advises clients on ethics-related matters) that Smith, through Novak, had described an illegal bribe as defined under United States Code, Title 18, Section 201, "Bribery of public officials and witnesses."

Forgive Chatterbox's redundancy in calling this an illegal bribe, but given the Washington political culture's tendency to use the word "bribe" in an almost exclusively metaphorical context—to describe squalid-but-legal rituals like corporations bundling campaign contributions for members of congressional committees who oversee their industries—it can be hard to remember that "bribe" in its most literal sense means an explicit quid pro quo that can put you in the slammer for two years. Among those who seemed to forget briefly the illegality of this alderman-style type of bribery was Smith himself, who in a Nov. 23 press commentarywrote that "bribes and special deals" were offered to pass the Medicare bill. As it gradually dawned on Smith that he wasn't just blowing off steam but actually accusing somebody of committing a felony, he backed away from his story in stages, eventually settling on a version in which Bob Novak took momentary possession of his brain. This prompted the Lansing State Journal to observe, with sublime understatement, that Smith's constituents "have reason to doubt his logic and credibility."

Smith was trying desperately to finesse the fact that he had previously told Kevin Vandenbroek of Kalamazoo's WKZO radio the same story he'd told Novak (click here to hear Smith tell it). Both the Novak account and Smith's comments to WKZO strongly hinted that the bribe had been offered by a member or members of the House leadership. In a Dec. 23 Washington Post story, Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., affirmed that Smith had told him (at a Chinese dinner the night of the vote attended by several other GOP members) that "people from leadership" had offered the $100,000.

This is a long way of saying that unless Smith is insane or extremely hard of hearing, there's pretty good evidence that someone in the House leadership did offer him a bribe, and that the evidence has been available for a long time. So, Chatterbox would like to think the FBI has been investigating it for a long, time, too. If not, better late than never. Maybe the G-men will persuade Smith to tell some version of what happened that it's possible to believe.