Two top political strategists for U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Pa.) on Tuesday became the latest targets in a widening federal probe of $90,000 the congressman paid a 2012 primary challenger to drop out of the race.
Federal prosecutors accused Ken Smukler, 57, and Donald “D.A.” Jones, 62, of making illegal campaign contributions on behalf of their boss and conspiring to hide the money in the campaign finance reports of his rival, former Municipal Court Judge Jimmie Moore.
Tuesday’s indictment moved the focus of the months-old investigation away from Moore’s own failure to accurately report the source of money to one that implicated members of Brady’s camp in a larger alleged conspiracy and cover-up.
Prosecutors offered no indication of whether they intend to charge Brady, one of the city’s most powerful Democrats, with a crime.
“The congressman is not charged,” said Brady’s lawyer, James Eisenhower. “He’s done nothing wrong. He has acknowledged that he agreed to help Moore relieve his campaign debts … and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Smukler and Davis vowed Tuesday to fight the charges against them. In doing so, they bucked a trend started by Moore and his former campaign manager and ex-fiancée, Carolyn Cavaness, both of whom agreed earlier this year to plead guilty and cooperate with investigators before they were charged in the case.
“The government’s effort to demonize …. Mr. Smukler sadly reflects a lack of understanding of [his] integrity and his character,” his lawyer, Brian McMonagle, said in a statement. “Mr. Smukler has never and would never engage in criminal conduct.”
Jones’ lawyer, Robert Trimble, also rejected the government’s claims about his client. “Mr. Jones has, from the initial contact from FBI agents and the government, maintained his innocence through all this,” Trimble said Tuesday. “He has done nothing illegal.”
The 18-page indictment charged the two men with five criminal counts each — conspiracy, making an illegal campaign donation, and three counts of false campaign-finance reports. Jones faces a sixth count of making false statements to the FBI during the investigation.
Their roles as potential targets of the probe had been telegraphed when the case emerged into public view this summer. Earlier this year, federal agents searched Smukler’s Villanova home, according to people familiar with the investigation.
Since then, defense lawyers have scrambled to convince the Justice Department that there is no evidence of crime. Brady’s team is hoping to forestall an indictment and the high-profile and politically damaging court battle that surely would follow.
Jones, of Willingboro, is known in Philadelphia political circles as a low-key technocrat, experienced in get-out-the-vote efforts. He has worked for candidates including former City Controller Jonathan Saidel and Sheriff Jewell Williams in recent years.
Smukler, a more gregarious operative and specialist in communications strategies, gained some prominence in 1987, serving as press secretary to Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr.’s 1987 re-election campaign. His clients since then have ranged from U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies to ex-Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane.
But Smukler is best known for his work with Brady — both in the congressman’s campaigns and in his three-decade leadership of the city’s Democratic Party.
According to his indictment, Smukler orchestrated how Brady’s $90,000 payment to Moore would be hidden.
Moore told a federal judge at a court hearing this month that he and the congressman had hatched a plan to conceal the source and reasons for the payment on Moore’s campaign filings.
The money was meant to cover debts Moore incurred during his short-lived race — including more than $80,000 the former judge had personally loaned his own campaign, Moore said.
Because federal campaign contribution limits at the time capped the amount that one candidate could give another campaign at $2,000 for a primary election, Smukler and Jones funneled the money from Brady’s campaign coffers to Moore’s by routing it through their companies, according to Tuesday’s indictment.
Prosecutors say Smukler instructed Cavaness to set up another consulting firm solely to receive the funds from Brady’s war chest. When FBI agents grilled Jones about his payments to Cavaness in May — five years after the payments — Jones lied, the indictment says.
Although some of the money went toward paying off Moore’s debts, he and Cavaness spent most of it on themselves, the indictment says. None of it showed up on Moore’s campaign finance filings, although the outgoing payments to Smukler and Jones were reported on Brady’s filings.
Brady and Smukler have maintained that the money they paid Cavaness and Moore was meant to obtain exclusive rights to polling data the judge had commissioned before dropping out of the race.
Federal Election Commission guidelines classify money paid for polling data from a defunct campaign as a campaign-to-campaign contribution subject to donation limits.
Contacted early Tuesday before the indictment had been publicly filed, Brady, en route to Washington, stood up for Smukler.
“I hope not,” he said of the prospect of charges. “He didn’t do nothing wrong. I don’t know what this is all about.”