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Inside Politics

Medicare bill bribery allegations probed

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 announced Wednesday it started an investigation almost two months ago into allegations Rep. Nick Smith was offered a bribe to vote for the Medicare prescription drug bill.

It was the first public acknowledgment the committee was looking into the matter, following public statements suggesting it was not.

On the night of the Medicare vote in November, Republican leaders worked hard to persuade Smith, a fiscally conservative Republican from Michigan who opposed the $400 billion price tag of the measure, to support the bill. In the end, he did not. (Full story)

Days later, however, he wrote in a column on his Web page that he was offered financial support for the campaign of his son, Brad, to succeed him when he retires at the end of this term.

After Republican leaders denied Smith was bribed, he recanted his allegation.

Since the charge became public in November, Democrats have been openly critical of GOP leaders and the ethics committee for not looking into the bribery charge.

Republican leaders, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, responded they were confident there had been no wrongdoing and that an investigation was unnecessary.

Democrats threatened to force an investigation by filing a complaint with the committee. In a recent letter, they cautioned Hastert they would do so soon if GOP leaders refused to ask for one themselves or if the committee didn't initiate one on its own.

The committee's chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colorado, and ranking Democrat, Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-West Virginia, said in a statement the committee started the "informal fact-finding" on December 8 -- on its own initiative, not because a complaint was filed.

"Our fact-finding activities are conducted on a confidential basis, and no further public comment will be made," at this time, the statement said.

Mollohan told CNN an "informal fact-finding" is what the committee calls the customary first step in what could become a full-blown investigation.

He refused to say if the investigation had progressed, or anything else specific about the inquiry. He said the statement was issued "just to get the information out."

A top Democratic aide was caught off guard, saying his party's leaders never knew an investigation was under way.

In a statement issued January 21, Hefley said "at this point a complaint has not been filed before the committee. So the committee has little to go on." (Full story)

He did say, however, that just because a complaint hadn't been filed, "you can't say we're not going to pursue it."

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