In interview, Smith looks back

| Copy Chief

Prison life will soon be here for Jeff Smith.

“Surely it won’t be a picnic,” Smith said. “But I’m a strong person, and I’ve overcome things before…so I’ll get through it, with the help of friends and family and a great support system.”

In an interview with Student Life on Friday, the former Washington University political science instructor and former Democratic state senator also reflected on his recent legal troubles and his teaching career at the University.

Smith’s term will start in about six weeks. Although he did not know where, he said he has asked to be placed in a facility in Marion, Ill., about 120 miles from St. Louis, because of its closeness. Before then, he plans to spend his time with friends and family, to write, and to read, especially short stories, memoirs and nonfiction works on political science, education and history. After prison, he hopes to do more community service and continue his work in education, though he is not sure yet if he will teach again.

Smith had pleaded guilty on Aug. 25 to two counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice for lying to investigators about his authorization of and involvement in an illegal postcard mailer during his 2004 congressional run. Smith was sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison and fined $50,000 on Tuesday.

Federal guidelines require all sentences of a year or less to be served fully, but the extra day Judge Carol Jackson put on Smith’s sentence could allow him to get out nearly two months early.

“I’m glad she did that,” Smith said. “It will allow me, if I encounter no problems during incarceration, to potentially get out early, so the potential for early release is obviously a good thing, and the fact that she departed from the guidelines was positive.”

Still, he said he would have liked to see her depart further. Smith’s attorney, Richard Greenberg, had sought home confinement and community service for Smith instead of prison time.

“I’m obviously not a threat to society, and I was no threat to re-offend, given that I will not be running for office in the future,” Smith said. “So I think the community would have been best served by having me remain here and continuing the community service-type things I’ve done for 20 years.”

Greenberg cited Smith’s annual 3-on-3 basketball tournament and community fair, the time he devoted to tutoring students, and the St. Louis charter schools he founded in 2002 called Confluence Academies. Jackson said Smith’s community service experience was notable, but felt he deserved prison time due to his long pattern of lying to investigators.

Smith also disagreed with Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith’s comment at the sentencing that he saw “the light go off” in campaign treasurer Nick Adams’ head but not in Smith’s. “I was not aware that he was possessed of such supernatural powers to see that,” Smith said. “I went into his office and did as I was advised by my attorney, which was to listen to the tapes without comment or expression.”

Goldsmith had said that Adams realized the seriousness of his crimes after hearing recordings of the three defendants’ conversations. But Goldsmith indicated he did not see the same reaction from Smith.

The Federal Election Commission found no evidence of wrongdoing on Smith’s part in its 2004-2007 investigation, but the FBI uncovered new evidence and reopened the inquiry in June 2009. Investigators conducted wiretaps and enlisted Smith’s co-conspirator, former state Rep. Steve Brown, D-Clayton, to wear a wire starting in June.

After the FEC investigation closed, Smith said, he “thought it was over.” But he was surprised after finding out that the FBI was revisiting the issue in June, when he heard that Democratic operative Milt “Skip” Ohlsen III may have been providing information on the postcard scheme to the FBI in exchange for a lighter sentence on an unrelated charge. FEC documents from 2004 link Ohlsen to the scheme, and Brown’s lawyer, Art Margulis, has cited Ohlsen as the John Doe in court documents who approached Smith’s campaign with the idea for it.

But Smith said the bigger surprise was “that my conversations were being taped. It was not something I would have put in the range of possibility.”

Smith said Brown called him in early June to say that Ohlsen may have been cooperating with the FBI. The two and Adams then met to discuss the matter.

The FBI then showed up at his house early on June 30 for an interview in which Smith said he lied about the postcards.

In July, the FBI had Smith listen to recordings; that’s when he and his attorney decided to work on a plea agreement, he said. Smith said he sought to keep others in his campaign out of the stipulation of facts if he did not know whether they had any interaction with Ohlsen.

Smith said he also asked prosecutors to delay the indictment until after his annual 3-on-3 basketball tournament and community fair, because “we had spent so much time preparing for that. That’s my big event of the year.” He also did not want to disappoint the many kids who had already signed up for the event and for free school supplies.

He was to teach a course in the fall on campaigns and elections, but he canceled the course in mid-August. He was popular among most of his students for his interactive class structure and lecture style; for instance, his campaigns and elections courses required students to devise and execute a mock campaign plan.

He said he learned “a lot about human nature” from his students. In his legislative process class, students would simulate debates and votes on legislation, and then explain the reasons behind their votes. “Listening to years and years of kids describing why they did what they did in the role play gave me a lot of insights for when I went to the Senate for how people will make decisions about bills,” Smith said.

Smith also noted how much he interacted with students and made them a part of his campaigns, saying, “I couldn’t have come close in my first election without students.” He estimated that half of his roughly 550 volunteers in 2004 were students from the University, Saint Louis University, University of Missouri-St. Louis and other schools.