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Panel probes Smith's claim of attempted bribery for Medicare vote

WASHINGTON - The House ethics committee has confirmed that an “informal fact-finding” is under way on whether a bribe was offered to outgoing Rep. Nick Smith (R., Addison) to vote for the new Medicare drug plan in exchange for a $100,000 contribution to his son's congressional campaign.

In a three-sentence statement, Reps. Joel Hefley (R., Colo.) and Alan Mollohan (D., W.Va.), the chairman and vice chairman of the panel, said the committee began looking into the matter on Dec. 8.

The statement read, “Our fact-finding activities are conducted on a confidential basis, and no further public comment will be made on this matter except in accordance with the committee rules.”

There was no information provided on why the committee waited two months to acknowledge the probe or why it decided to confirm its existence.

Mr. Smith is retiring from Congress this year after six terms, and his son Brad is among a number of Republicans vying to replace him.

In late November, Mr. Smith voted against the Medicare bill, despite intense pressure from House GOP leaders to support it. Two days after the bill passed the House, he issued a press release saying that, as the vote was going on, he was subjected to “the most intense and strongest pressure to change my vote that I've ever experienced.”

“My only regret is that it [the no vote] might have hurt my son. ... Since I'm retiring and my son Brad is running for my seat, I got significant promises for help for his campaign and threats they'd work against him if I voted no.”

Mr. Smith added, “Brad got word of the situation and called me and told me that he didn't want to go to Congress this way. He told me to do the right thing. That helped my resolve.”

In interviews with columnist Robert Novak and a Michigan radio reporter, Mr. Smith said Medicare bill supporters had offered “$100,000-plus” for his son's campaign.

Mr. Smith has refused to say who offered him money or threatened to torpedo his son's campaign when he refused to vote for the bill. He also has backpedaled on some of his original statements.

Mr. Smith has since said that, while there were promises of endorsements and other support for his son's campaign, “no specific reference was made to money.”

Mr. Smith had no comment yesterday on the probe, a spokesman said.

A spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan campaign watchdog group, said it's unclear exactly what the panel will do, but the idea is to figure out who apparently attempted to bribe Mr. Smith.

“We've also asked the Department of Justice to review the matter,” said Mark Glaze, a spokesman for the center. “It's our view that it falls squarely within the federal bribery statute.”

Officials at the Justice Department did not return a call for comment.

House Democrats have been steadily pushing for a House ethics committee investigation of the Smith matter since the House narrowly voted to pass the Medicare legislation in late November.

The Medicare bill was a top priority for President Bush.

Last week, after release of information showing that the costs of the new Medicare drug law have risen by more than one-third, Mr. Smith issued another statement.

“Hate to say it, but I told you so,” he said. “My ‘no' vote on the bill is looking better all the time.

“The easy vote would have been to go along with the gang and vote for it. I'm glad for the support from my family and others to stick to my guns,” Mr. Smith said.

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