Shaking off its hangover from the nasty partisan scandalmongering of the late 1990s, the House ethics committee has finally begun an investigation into Rep. Nick Smith's allegation that a member of the House leadership tried to bribe him into supporting the Medicare drug bill. According to Roll Call, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the matter, too. But a Kalamazoo talk-radio host whose scoop made it impossible to sweep Smith's allegations under the rug is out of a job.
Kevin Vandenbroek, formerly of WKZO radio, should have gotten a raise for his contribution to the Smith story, which was picked up by Slate and subsequently by just about every other national publication covering the Medicare bribe. Instead, Vandenbroek was fired last month, apparently for political reasons.
The whole saga, you'll recall, began when Nick Smith, a conservative Michigan Republican who will retire at the end of this year, came out against the Bush administration's Medicare drug bill on the grounds that it was too expensive. (The Bush administration's refusal to share honest budget figures about the measure's cost is the subject of at least one separate investigation.) On the late-November night of the vote and for about a week afterward, Smith told various people that someone in the House leadership, whom he declined to name, had offered to procure $100,000 or more for the congressional campaign of Smith's son Brad, who wants to succeed his father in Congress. All Smith had to do was change his vote to "yes." Smith refused the offer and voted against the bill, which passed by a narrow margin. But Smith was so steamed—there had also been a threat to withhold money from Brad's campaign if Smith didn't play ball—that he spread the word about the House leadership's perfidy. It does not appear to have occurred to Smith that the offer of $100,000 met the statutory definition of a bribe, and that he was therefore calling one of his own party leaders a crook.
Smith tried to clarify his way out of the criminal accusation. "I want to make clear that no member of Congress made an offer of financial assistance for my son's campaign in exchange for my vote on the Medicare bill," Smith said in a Dec. 4 press release. "No specific reference was made to money." That contradicted a Nov. 23 commentary Smith had written, which said "bribes and special deals were offered to convince members to vote yes" and alluded to "offers of extensive financial campaign support and endorsements for my son Brad." Still, these references were a little vague.
The $100,000 wasn't vague at all. Robert Novak had mentioned it in print, and Smith had relayed to Chatterbox, via an aide, that Novak's column was "basically accurate." That was enough to persuade Chatterbox that Smith's new line that "No specific reference was made to money" was a clumsy lie. Still, it was whisper-down-the-lane.
A smoking gun was needed, and Vandenbroek provided it: a taped Dec. 1 interview in which Smith said he'd been offered "$100,000-plus" for Brad's campaign. (To listen to the interview, click here.) Since the WKZO tape surfaced, Smith has revised his story yet again, but he still can't offer a plausible explanation as to why he would have mentioned a $100,000 offer to Vandenbroek if no such offer had been made. (The latest and most ridiculous iteration is that Novak's erroneous reporting of the $100,000 figure popped inexplicably into his head and he blurted it out unthinkingly.) More than anything else, it is this glaring deficiency in Smith's recantation that makes further investigation an obvious necessity.
Vandenbroek did himself no particular good at WKZO by providing evidence that the House GOP leadership may harbor a felon. "While there are some people at the station who seem to be quite proud of my coverage of Nick Smith," Vandenbroek told Chatterbox, "I think there were others that might have been uncomfortable that it was focusing on a member of the Republican Party." There was no blowback on Smith, but soon afterward, a Vandenbroek broadcast pointing out a few dubious claims in President Bush's Feb. 8 Meet the Press interview prompted a complaint to the station from the local Republican Party headquarters. The Bush broadcast "made the owner of the station very uncomfortable," Vandenbroek said. "I got called in and told to stay away from politics." Strike 3 was a mildly intemperate e-mail Vandenbroek sent to the Christian right author Jefferson Scott after Scott declined to appear on Vandenbroek's show to discuss Be Intolerant: Because Some Things Are Just Stupid. Be Intolerant is a manifesto Scott co-authored with Ryan Dobson, son of James Dobson, chairman of the powerful Christian right organization Focus on the Family. "The straw that broke the camel's back was their contention that I violated e-mail policy," Vandenbroek explained.
It should be pointed out that Vandenbroek is nobody's idea of a shock jock. He does not swear on the air or traffic in sophomoric innuendo, and his e-mail to Scott did not contain any obscenities. WKZO's program director, Dave Jaconette, declined to give a reason for Vandenbroek's departure. ("We don't comment on employee matters like that.") Vandenbroek's replacement is Seth Harp, a more or less apolitical former sports announcer.
WKZO's owners are, of course, free to make their product as free of politics as they like (though Chatterbox has yet to encounter a talk-radio host who ever got fired for being too conservative). But Vandenbroek's prominence in reporting a major political story ought to make WKZO proud. Instead, it apparently made the Kalamazoo radio station nervous.
Medicare Bribe Archive:
Feb. 26, 2004: " FBI Examines Medicare Bribe"
Feb. 4, 2004: " Brad's Little Problem"
Jan. 22, 2004: " Burying the Bribe"
Jan. 8, 2004: " Bob Novak Ate My Brain!"
Dec. 23, 2003: " Now It's a Scandal"
Dec. 8, 2003: " A Drug-Company Bribe?"
Dec. 6, 2003: " Why Smith Can't Recant"
Dec. 5, 2003: " Nick Smith Recants"
Dec. 1, 2003: " Who Tried To Bribe Rep. Smith?"