Jeff Smith: A political tragedy in three acts
Illustration by Greg Betza
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“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
In 2004, an unusually energetic 29-year-old—a white guy with a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies and a Ph.D. in political science—starts going door-to-door, campaigning for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s his first crack at elected office, and he edges out eight opponents and comes within 1,725 votes of beating Russ Carnahan, scion of Missouri’s most famous political family.
But he tries too hard.
First, he lets his staffers coordinate a campaign mailing (a negative but accurate postcard about Carnahan) that’s supposed to be independently produced. Then he lies about it to the feds.
The initial screw-up is garden-variety politicking. The surprise is that they get caught. The catastrophe is that they lie about it. And the betrayal comes when his best friend wears a wire to incriminate him.
By the time the charges are filed, Jeff Smith is a state senator. He resigns from office in August 2009, and in December is sentenced to a year and a day in prison. He says his political career is over.
But neither his friends nor his enemies are letting go.
When people talk about Smith, they make three points over and over again. He’s short (“a tiny little guy”) with a squeaky voice (“sounds like he’s castrated”). He’s a brilliant, charismatic politician. And he tweets too much.
From there, they choose sides. He’s either a decent guy who made a dumb mistake out of fear, or an arrogant manipulator who bends the rules to suit his needs.
Either way, he’s in prison now, and by all accounts a lot more contented than the people who are waiting—with mixed emotions—for his release.
They want to know only one thing: Is he truly sorry? Or just sorry he got caught?
In the charges brought against Smith, some of the taped quotes sound like a kid scrambling for excuses. Others sound Machiavellian. Assistant U.S. attorney Hal Goldsmith called the case “textbook corruption,” and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch accused Smith of “venality and craven opportunism.” Smith’s supporters say the feds overreacted and took away Missouri’s most promising politician.
Interesting debate—but it’s the vehemence on both sides that puzzles me. A short guy who tweets proves himself either a jerk or an idiot—why such vitriol? And why such sorrow?
I start talking to Smith’s supporters and detractors, and with every conversation, what should have been a simple plot grows more complicated. Outside of his circle, the tale takes on mythic proportions: Jeff Smith was an underdog, an outsider, a fresh face, the hope of the future. He came from nowhere and rose to power. Then he sinned and fell from grace, because it was inevitable, and America tears down its heroes, and even a bid for power corrupts, and politics is broken.
Worn down by the clichés, I ask someone close to him what turned a screw-up that would have gotten him a fine and a slap on the wrist into a felony conviction for obstructing justice. Did Smith lie about that postcard on reckless impulse, out of pride, to protect his young staff, to avoid disappointing people who believed in him, because he craved power, because he wanted to help people, or to show he was the smartest guy in the room?
I call Smith in January. He's already been sentenced, and he’s still hoping to serve his time close to home, in Marion, Ill. (No dice. They ignore his judge’s recommendation and send him seven hours away, to rural Kentucky.) He answers personal questions freely, and his tone’s conversational, but he’s saying, almost verbatim, the same things he’s said to every other reporter. He only sounds spontaneous when he talks about the safe, distant past: “My mom always said I was a very determined kid. I wouldn’t get in the stroller; it made me feel like a wimp.”
For the second interview, he rides his bike from the city out to the Brentwood Borders (no wimp would do that). He got rear-ended, he explains. “My car was probably worth $2,500, and it would’ve cost $3,000 to fix it. And I’ve got a $50,000 retainer to pay my attorney and a $50,000 fine, so I’m not trying to buy a new car. I mean, I don’t need a car anyway. I’m going to jail.”
Every few minutes, he checks his famous BlackBerry. The BlackBerry he used on the Senate floor, irritating his enemies. The BlackBerry a friend says got him in trouble at a casino, after they twice asked him to put it down. He boyishly admits addiction and says giving it up is what scares him most about prison. Then he gets serious and talks about how hard his mother’s taking this and how bitter he feels about his friend betraying him. The sentiments seem genuine, but controlled: He is open without spilling emotion; self-deprecating without really being vulnerable.
When I ask if I can email him some follow-up questions, he looks relieved. “That would be a lot easier,” he says, explaining that he’s been trying to speak very deliberately—not his usual style—so he doesn’t phrase something wrong.
Now he’s careful?
Jeff Smith grew up in a ranch house in Olivette, and that got him into the Ladue School District. At Ladue Horton Watkins High School, he aroused the same ratio of wholehearted admiration and wariness that later greeted his candidacy—roughly 80:20. President of the student body, co-captain of the basketball team, valedictorian, he made tons of friends—black kids in the deseg program, white kids from Ladue, even faculty. His math teacher would later write, “Jeff enhanced valued discussions on geometric concepts and deductive proofs of theorems.” But his smartass comments lost him the trust of more sensitive classmates, who decided he was, put simply, a jerk.
Smith graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He burned with ambition, but not for the usual shallow stuff, like money. Even when he gambled, it was more for the rush than the jackpot. And his friends’ sweet visions of a wife, kids, and picket fence left him ambivalent at best.
What excited Smith were political ideas, solutions that would transform the world. That’s where the ego came in: He wanted to be the one to make those changes. So against the advice of everybody in his family, he plunged into politics. He went from working on other people’s campaigns to running for U.S. Congress, with no steps in between.
Smith campaigned the old-fashioned way, going door-to-door, sometimes in a T-shirt and shorts, drawing young people like a Pied Piper, or maybe a Pepper. Mary Long, a mom who liked his progressive pragmatism, helped him buy suits that fit. (“He was so cheap, he was wearing clothes his basketball coach gave him!” she recalls. “The collar had this big gap, and the tie hung down…”)
He thought hard about the issues, spoke eloquently, slept only a few hours a night. “He doesn’t do any caffeine, either—it’s all 7UP and OJ,” says Kailey Burger, who started interning for Smith at 18. “I’d text him at 4 a.m., and he’d text me right back.”
It drove Smith crazy that the media and the political establishment ignored him, and meanwhile, there sat his big-name rival, absent time after time from the Missouri House of Representatives. “I want to beat him more than life itself,” Smith was filmed saying. He was determined not to run a negative campaign—but he couldn’t get anyone in the press to report on Carnahan’s absenteeism. “He’s missed more votes than all but four of his 163 colleagues in the state house!” Smith kept saying—and nobody seemed to care.
So when aides came to him and said somebody wanted to help him by producing a flyer that wouldn’t have his campaign name on it, but could point out that voting record, Smith said, If he’ll do that, great.
“I vividly remember somebody being like, ‘Well, [Skip Ohlsen] wants to do this,’ and I was like, ‘Well fucking let him do it, sweet,’” he was later recorded telling his friend Steve Brown. “And they’re like, ‘Well, he’s going to need to get the money to do it, he’ll need to get it from your donors,’ and I said, like, ‘Well, hopefully my donors will give it to him.’”
It’s called an independent expenditure, and it’s a legitimate way to let your donors continue to support your campaign after they’ve reached the campaign-finance limit. The catch is the word “independent.” The campaign cannot talk to the people who are organizing the independent expenditure, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, the “someone” was a guy named Skip Ohlsen. (Actually, Milton Harold Olsen III, a.k.a. Mark Hamilton Ohlsen, Mike Ohlsen, Mike Scott, Nathan Alexander, Alexander Nathan, and Michael Alexander. But they didn’t know all of that yet.) He wanted to work for Smith, and he’d already broached a commercial and gotten turned down flat. “I didn’t have a good feeling about him,” Smith says now, wincing. A simple postcard, though, done externally so Smith didn’t look like he was going negative. Hard to turn down.
Ohlsen presented himself as a one-stop communications shop, with computers to put together the graphics, contacts in mailing houses, and video and audio equipment. Finding the money was no problem: Brown, who was not on the campaign staff, had agreed to coordinate such things for his friend. Brown got the bulk of the money for Ohlsen from two big Smith donors, Adolphus Busch and Donald Musick, plus a handful of other donors, and added a personal check for $5,000.
But then Ohlsen started talking to young campaign staffers, mainly treasurer Nick Adams and communications/press director Artie Harris, about how the mailing should be done.
They shouldn’t have answered. But they had the data he needed, and they had the mailing lists, and they knew how they wanted it done. Harris, a New Yorker who didn’t mind rolling up his sleeves, had urged the team all along to stop being so nicey-nice. This was their chance to blast politics’ favorite son with the facts.
Smith says he was out of the project altogether at this point. He talks about the incident as “15 minutes in a long campaign” and uses phrases like “I became aware” and “my aides brought this to me.” People who’ve seen him work find this a bit disingenuous; they say he would have tracked every detail. “Jeff’s a micromanager,” blurts one. “He does not have a campaign manager; he is his own campaign manager. Nobody tells Jeff what to do on a campaign.”
By the same token, the staffers’ involvement with the project wasn’t exactly Watergate. “It happens,” another Missouri politician readily admits. “You’ve got a bunch of A-type personalities on a campaign, and they want it done right. It happens, and when you get called on the carpet, you say, ‘We did it.’”
Those words just wouldn’t come out of Smith’s mouth. And to complicate matters, the guy they were working with wasn’t exactly righteous, and he’d grown sufficiently paranoid to tape his conversations. He was also a bit absent-minded, or perhaps too quick with a jibe: He’d formed an organization, Voters for Truth, that would be the independent sponsor of the flyer—but instead of putting “Paid for by Voters for Truth” on the back, he put “www.rustycarnahan.org.”
Some say that tiny slip started the unraveling; others say Carnahan would have been suspicious anyway. In any event, the Federal Election Commission went looking for the sponsor of the mailing. That’s when the biblical rooster crowed the first time: Smith submitted a false sworn affidavit saying, “I have no knowledge of who was responsible for the [postcard]…nor who paid for the mailing.”
Mailing houses keep records. Soon the FEC was back, asking Smith whether he knew a “Milton Ohlsen III.” No, he told investigators on April 12, 2006, he did not. (He says he only knew a person named Skip and did not know his surname.)
That November, they subpoenaed Ohlsen to testify in D.C.
Ohlsen called Brown two days beforehand. “He said, ‘I want to meet with you before I go in and talk to the feds,’ and Steve Brown contacted me and said, ‘What should I say?’” Smith recalls. “I said, ‘Just be very vague and listen.’ Steve said, ‘What if he says, ‘I want to work for you guys in the future?’’ I did not want Skip to spill the beans, but I didn’t want Steve to do anything illegal, either.”
What Brown should have said was, “I’m out. I’m done. And if they call me, I’m telling the truth.” Instead, he met with Ohlsen and wound up blurting, “I mean, Jeff is prepared, as am I, you know, to still be your friend, and to show it, and I think you picked that up, you know, if you keep us out of this… You’ve got Jeff with the possibility of a, you know, the Senate campaign stuff, we know you’re on the line but we’re prepared to still be your friends… We’re prepared to take care of you in this if you take care of us in this.”
With those words—which, unbeknownst to Brown, Ohlsen was taping—Brown became complicit.
Ohlsen testified on November 16. He lied and said he was just “working for” Voters for Truth (in divorce proceedings the following year, Michelle Ohlsen corrected that one). He said an anonymous individual had paid him in cash, but he did reveal he’d gotten information from Artie Harris, and he did name a “Steve Brown.”
Ohlsen flew home and met with Brown and Adams in the steam room of Brown’s club—a convenience that would later make it sound like they watched too many movies.
In March 2007, Harris and Adams took their turns lying to the FEC about the campaign’s involvement.
On December 12, 2007, the FEC issued its final report. The investigators called Ohlsen’s testimony “overall vague, ambiguous, and inconsistent,” couldn’t verify the existence of the mysterious “Steve Brown,” and found no evidence that Smith’s campaign had been directly involved in the mailing.
Smith and Brown had gotten lucky.