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Inside Politics

Ethics panel leaning against bribery probe

No complaint filed on allegation of Medicare vote offer

From Ted Barrett
CNN Washington Bureau

Rep. Nick Smith of Michigan
Rep. Nick Smith of Michigan

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House Ethics Committee chairman said Wednesday he has "little to go on" in investigating a Republican congressman's since-retracted claim that he was offered a bribe in exchange for his vote on the Medicare reform bill late last year.

In a radio interview following the November vote, retiring Rep. Nick Smith of Michigan suggested GOP leaders offered $100,000 for his son's congressional campaign in exchange for a yes vote on the Medicare bill -- signed into law by President Bush last month.

Smith later backed away from the assertion, saying in a written statement that no member of Congress had made any offer of financial assistance in exchange for his vote.

Ethics Committee Chairman Joel Hefley of Colorado said in December he thought it would be "appropriate" for the panel to look into the matter.

But Wednesday he issued a statement saying, "At this point a complaint has not been filed before the committee. So the committee has little to go on."

In the end, Smith voted against the bill. GOP leaders won passage by persuading other Republicans to switch their votes during a dramatic three-hour vote in the middle of the night.

It was a Bush administration priority that nearly failed despite heavy lobbying by the White House, GOP House leaders, lobbyists for the health care industry and senior citizens.

In a hallway encounter Wednesday, Smith grew emotional as he described the pressure he was under to support the Medicare bill.

"They can do whatever investigation they want to do," Smith said. "I'm concerned that mostly I didn't want to hurt my son Brad's campaign. I stood up to a lot of pressure for two reasons: It was the right vote, and I think my son Brad ..."

He began to tear up and turned away before finishing. Just before he slipped onto the House floor and out of reach of reporters he said, "It's just so easy to talk, I've got to guard against that."

House rules don't require a complaint to be filed for the ethics panel to investigate allegations of wrongdoing; the committee can pursue a matter on its own.

Hefley cautioned that just because a complaint hasn't been filed, "You can't say we're not going to pursue it."

Justice Department investigators also are reviewing the allegations but haven't said if they'll begin a formal probe, a department spokesman said.

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