ST. LOUIS — Missouri state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, pleaded guilty Tuesday to two federal counts of obstruction of justice tied to his failed 2004 congressional campaign and announced he would resign from office, ending what was once thought to be a promising political career.
State Rep. Steve Brown, D-Clayton, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to obstruct justice and said he also would step down.
Smith's congressional campaign came under scrutiny after a supposedly independent group distributed postcards and fliers critical of his primary opponent, current U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan. In his plea, Smith admitted involvement. He also acknowledged that he lied to Federal Election Commission investigators.
Smith's 2004 campaign treasurer, Nick Adams, pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Smith told U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson that during the campaign he learned that an individual was planning an effort on his campaign's behalf. He said that although he knew it was illegal to coordinate efforts with independent committees, he authorized Brown — then an aide to Smith — to raise money for the effort, and his campaign staff provided information on Carnahan's voting record as a state lawmaker.
Smith said he lied to FEC investigators and coordinated with Brown to mislead the agency's probe.
He said that in 2009, he learned the investigation was reopened and spoke with Brown and Adams to encourage them to again mislead investigators.
"I wrongly believed we could conceal my campaign's coordination with the independent operator," Smith told the judge. "I'm guilty as charged, and I take full responsibility for my mistake."
As part of a plea deal, federal prosecutors agreed not to pursue further charges against Smith for conspiring and attempting to obstruct the FEC investigation, and for conspiring to obstruct a federal grand jury this year.
Sentencing for both men is set for Nov. 10. They could face up to 20 years in prison on each count and a fine of $250,000. Prosecutors have recommended a reduced sentence for Brown for his cooperation.
"This event has humbled me," Smith said in a statement. "I have done some significant introspection, and that has been the hardest part, coming to terms with my own poor judgments and mistakes. I apologize to my constituents, my staff, my Senate colleagues, my supporters and to Congressman Carnahan."
Both Smith and Brown are freshman lawmakers. Smith, 35, was elected to a four-year Senate term in 2006; Brown, 42, was elected to a two-year term in the House in 2008.
Gov. Jay Nixon received resignation letters from both and immediately called for a Nov. 3 special election for their seats.
Republican House and Senate leaders released a joint statement praising Smith's service.
Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said Smith made "serious mistakes" but was a "reasonable person" who encouraged bipartisanship in the Capitol.
House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, called Smith honest and straightforward.
"It's really too bad. Jeff was a hard working principled individual, who has spent his life helping those that are less fortunate," Tilley said. "It's unfortunate his error in judgment led to this."
Some of the 2004 campaign materials claimed they were paid for by rustycarnahan.org while others included no mention of the source.
Carnahan's campaign filed a complaint with the FEC, which decided in December 2007 not to take any action against Smith, saying there was no reason to believe federal laws were violated.
As part of the FEC investigation, Smith denied any connection to the critical materials in a September 2004 affidavit.
"To the best of my knowledge and belief, no one who was part of the Friends of Jeff Smith Committee nor any other group or organization under my control participated in any manner in the creation, printing, copying, distribution, mailing, or financing of any of the documents," Smith said in an earlier sworn statement to FEC.
The FEC's probe focused on a political campaign committee called Voters for Truth, which ordered direct-mail postcards for distribution to about 25,000 residents in the 3rd Congressional District. A report to the FEC from its general counsel on Dec. 10, 2007, said Milton H. "Skip" Ohlsen III "was most likely the person responsible for the formation/activities" of Voters for Truth.
Ohlsen told investigators that Adams and another Smith campaign aide were primarily involved in Voters for Truth. He also said Brown was responsible for soliciting funds for the committee.
But investigators were unable to find contact information for Brown. They concluded that Adams' denial of involvement with Voters for Truth was more credible than Ohlsen's allegations.
The report states that investigators believed Ohlsen was seeking to implicate Adams while downplaying his own involvement.
Smith was considered an underdog in the 2004 congressional race, and the campaign was the subject of a documentary called "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?"
Carnahan, who still holds the seat, is the son of former Gov. Mel Carnahan and U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan. Smith lost to Russ Carnahan by fewer than 2,000 votes out of the more than 107,000 cast in the Democratic primary.
The documentary's creators said the film attempted to show political candidates with connections and money have significant advantages over others — regardless of ability.
— Associated Press writers Jim Salter and Cheryl Wittenauer in St. Louis and Chris Blank in Jefferson City contributed to this report.