Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A year and a day for Jeff Smith

Judge Jackson sentences former state senator for obstruction of justice

By Chris King
Of The St. Louis American

Former state Sen. Jeff Smith’s good works saved him at least three months in federal prison.

On Tuesday morning Judge Carol E. Jackson sentenced Smith to 12 months and one day in prison and a fine of $50,000, whereas sentencing guidelines for his crimes called for 15 to 21 months of incarceration.

In August Smith pled guilty to two counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice. Jackson sentenced him to 12 months and one day in prison (and two years of supervised release) for each charge, but the sentences will run concurrently.

“These are very serious offenses – ongoing efforts to thwart ongoing investigations by the FEC and FBI,” Jackson said to Smith during the sentencing hearing Tuesday morning in federal district court.

“Serious, in that these were the legitimate efforts on the part of two government bodies to perform the duties they are supposed to perform: investigating allegations of misconduct.”

Smith and his codefendants conspired to obstruct justice in 2004 when the Federal Election Commission investigated a minor act of campaign fraud committed in the course of Smith’s 2004 congressional campaign against Russ Carnahan in the Democratic primary.

This year they conspired to obstruct justice when the FBI investigated the earlier conspiracy, which was uncovered through recordings made covertly by a campaign operative, who remains imprisoned on other charges.

The 2009 conspiracy against the FBI was recorded by a cooperating witness, codefendant Steve Brown, a state representative at the time, who avoided a prison sentence for his cooperation. He and Nick Adams, the young treasurer of Smith’s 2004 campaign, were sentenced by Jackson to two years of probation and fines of $40,00 and $5,000, respectively.

Transcriptions of those wire tapes, which prosecutor Hal Goldsmith read aloud in the sentencing hearing, reveal Smith scheming to lie and conceal evidence of their crimes and even attempt to pin them on a co-conspirator from the 2004 campaign who had since killed himself.

The Jeff Smith revealed on these tapes stood in stark contrast to the selfless public servant described in the many letters of support submitted by the defendant. “Reading these letters, then reading these transcripts, leads me to wonder: Who is the real Jeff Smith?” Jackson said.

Clearly, the testimony in the letters impacted the judge – and she said she had taken them into consideration.

“There is no doubt in my mind that you have contributed significantly to the community and social causes. Moreover, your contributions were motivated by a genuine desire to help people and better lives, not motivated by personal, professional or political gain,” Jackson said to Smith.

“Your service was significant, perhaps even extraordinary, compared to what others have done. A lot of politicians have showed up at events to have their picture taken, we all know that. You showed up because you wanted to be there and you wanted to participate. You touched a lot of people’s lives.”

Ultimately, though, Smith’s obstruction of justice – continued for five years through two separate conspiracies against two separate federal investigations – weighed too heavily against him to keep him out of prison, as his attorney had requested.

“What’s most troubling is you had many, many opportunities between 2004 and 2009 to come clean, and you didn’t do that,” Jackson said.

“You and your codefendants continued to think of ways to conceal what you did. One lie led to another, and they built on each other. That is very troubling. Our justice system doesn’t work very well when people interfere with it.”

The need for deterrence, the judge said, demanded prison time.

“Deterrence is an important factor, not only for yourself but for others in your position. It is important that your sentence reflect promotion of respect for the law, which you and your defendants showed very little respect for in your conduct,” Jackson said.

“Probation and house arrest is not punishment. How you perpetrated these crimes, and the period of time you perpetrated them, warrants something more.”

The film Frank Popper made about Smith’s 2004 campaign includes footage of Smith’s mother saying she wished her son wouldn’t pursue electoral politics because of the dirty things people do to win. Those haunting words may now be joined in Smith’s memory by something incisive Judge Jackson said when weighing Smith’s crimes against his record of community service.

Jackson said, “I have to wonder, because you seem so sincere and have such a stellar record, do people tend to believe you, even when you are lying to them?”

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