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Dems want inquiry into reports of Medicare bribe
by William M. Welch and Andrea Stone
December 5, 2003

Democrats and a legal watchdog group have asked Attorney General John Ashcroft (news - web sites) to investigate allegations that Republicans offered a House member $100,000 in contributions for his son's election campaign if he would vote for a Medicare prescription drug benefit passed by Congress last month.

Such an offer could be interpreted as a bribe that violates federal law, Democrats and outside legal experts said. Ashcroft spokesman Mark Corallo said Thursday that the attorney general's office will review a letter requesting an investigation from Democratic National Committee (news - web sites) Chairman Terry McAuliffe.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a non-partisan legal watchdog group, also wrote Ashcroft demanding an investigation. "The attempted bribery and extortion of a member of Congress on the House floor destroys the heart of our democracy," she wrote.

Though lobbying for support is common during close votes, the Republicans' successful effort in the wee hours of Nov. 22 stands out for several reasons. GOP leaders held the vote open for nearly three hours. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who customarily leaves partisan arm-twisting to others, was actively involved. So was Tommy Thompson, President Bush (news - web sites)'s secretary of Health and Human Services (news - web sites), even though Cabinet members seldom enter the House or Senate chambers.

Media reports have alleged that an undisclosed Republican told Rep. Nick Smith (news, bio, voting record), R-Mich., that if he voted for the bill, business interests would contribute $100,000 to help his son, Brad, succeed him. Smith is not seeking re-election in 2004. His son is one of several Republican candidates running for the seat.

"Not only was this bribe offered to a member of Congress, it was offered on the floor of the House of Representatives by another member of Congress," McAuliffe wrote Ashcroft.

The allegation was first reported Nov. 27 by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. Kurt Schmautz, head of Smith's congressional staff, said Smith confirmed Novak's account as "basically accurate." He said Smith had no further comment.

Brad Smith said he did not believe a dollar amount was mentioned. He said his father was told "there's an opportunity for substantial support for your son" if he voted for the bill. He refused to say who made the offer but said his father didn't regard it as a bribe.

The younger Smith said the incident has "backfired" in his district. "A lot of primary voters are disgusted with the hardball politics in Washington," he said.

Smith did not support the bill. It passed, 220-215, after GOP leaders spent almost three hours rounding up votes. Smith was among a group of conservatives who opposed the 10-year, $400 billion bill because they feared it would cost even more in the future. The bill was a priority of the Bush administration and Republican leaders. The Senate approved it, 54-44, Nov. 25. Bush plans to sign it into law Monday.

Since the House vote, others have urged Smith to say who offered the $100,000 in campaign contributions. In an online column on Slate.com, Timothy Noah wrote, "Stop protecting him, congressman!"

Smith told Gannett News Service on Nov. 24 that he had been lobbied heavily to support the bill. He said he had received promises that business interests and GOP leaders would help his son's campaign in exchange. He said he also was told those same groups would work to defeat his son if Smith voted against the bill.

Hardball tactics are customary in the House when votes are needed to pass legislation. But they more often involve promises of plum committee assignments, visits to districts for campaign help or specific additions to legislation.

Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a public-interest research group, said such an episode would be "a revealing vignette."

"It's a window into how politics works, and how closely tethered contributors are to their respective parties, and how they work hand in hand in getting their way legislatively," Lewis said.

Lewis said there was little chance the Justice Department (news - web sites) or the House ethics committee would investigate. In the House, Democrats and Republicans have an unspoken agreement not to initiate ethics inquiries, and only a member's request can trigger a committee investigation. House Democratic leaders avoided comment on Smith's allegations Thursday.

American Enterprise (news - web sites) Institute political analyst Norman Ornstein said that if the reports are true, the incident "cuts across a whole series of lines." He said Thompson's presence and Hastert's lobbying were highly unusual. "I've never heard of anything like this on the floor," Ornstein said. "It just stains the speakership."

Ornstein said an inducement of campaign money "is by every standard a violation of the law." But he added, "Will anything be done about it? I'm very skeptical."

Posted: December 5, 2003


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