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Despite Shaky Record, Schmidt Gets Protection

By Kevin Osborne · September 28th, 2011 · Porkopolis
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It’s been a rocky couple of weeks for U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Miami Township), whose ethics are once again being questioned.

First, Schmidt was selected by a nonpartisan ethics watchdog group as one of the most corrupt members of Congress. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) bestowed the dubious honor on Schmidt for improperly accepting free legal services and failing to report them as gifts on her personal financial disclosure statements.

As regular CityBeat readers know, Schmidt received about $500,000 in free legal assistance since spring 2009 from the Turkish Coalition of America to support her lawsuit against David Krikorian, a Madeira businessman and her former political opponent. Krikorian ran as an independent against Schmidt in 2008, and also unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic primary for the same seat last year.

Schmidt is suing Krikorian for defamation and seeking $6.8 million in damages. During the ‘08 campaign, Krikorian distributed a pamphlet alleging Schmidt had received “blood money” from the Turkish government in return for her opposition to a congressional resolution that declared Turkey committed genocide against Armenia during a 1915 conflict.

After an investigation, the House Ethics Committee ruled in August that Schmidt did receive an “impermissible gift,” but somehow didn’t “knowingly” violate the law. The committee stated Schmidt’s lawyers “failed to inform her of their payment arrangement” and “made false and misleading statements to her about about their relationship” with the Turkish group.

Put more simply, Schmidt’s defense is that her lawyers lied to her.

By the way, one of her lawyers is Bruce Fein, a lobbyist who once was associate deputy attorney general under President Reagan and is a major player in Washington, D.C. Fein also represents the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund and is listed as a “resident scholar” for the Turkish Coalition of America — both of whom just happen to be among Schmidt’s major donors.

Oddly, Schmidt is a member of the Congressional Caucus on U.S.-Turkish Relations, although there are scant few voters of Turkish descent in her district. Regardless, Schmidt takes her duties seriously.

As Politico’s Alex Isenstadt wrote last spring, “She’s also become a frequent visitor to Turkey.

Since 2008, Schmidt and her (then-)chief of staff, Barry Bennett, have taken four trips there, according to Legistorm, a website that monitors congressional spending. The cost of the trips totaled more than $35,000.”

Shortly after the 2008 election, Schmidt was contacted by Fein and lawyer David Saltzman, both of the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund. They offered to file a lawsuit on Schmidt’s behalf against Krikorian. According to various published reports, Fein allegedly suggested a contingency fee arrangement, in which they wouldn’t charge Schmidt for their services but she would agree to split the proceeds of any monetary damages awarded in the case. No final fee arrangement ever was reached, the Ethics Committee’s report states.

Fein and Saltzman represented Schmidt in a complaint filed against Krikorian with the Ohio Elections Commission. After the commission issued a written reprimand against Krikorian, he unsuccessfully appealed in state court. The two lawyers continued to represent Schmidt in the appeal, as well as filing an amicus brief on her behalf in a federal lawsuit Krikorian filed that challenged the commission’s ability to issue a reprimand. After that, Schmidt used the lawyers to file a civil lawsuit against Krikorian in June 2010.

The report issued by the Office of Congressional Ethics states the Turkish Coalition of America paid $498,587 in legal fees for Schmidt between 2008 and December 2010. Although Schmidt says she didn’t know the group was paying her bills and was waiting on guidance from the House Ethics Committee to create a legal defense fund, she didn’t request that permission from the committee until July 2010 — nearly two years after the representation began.

Ultimately, the House Ethics Committee ordered Schmidt to pay the lawyers for all legal work provided to date, make sure the coalition doesn’t pay any more of her legal bills and amend her 2009 and 2010 financial disclosure forms. Yes, despite all her tortured explanations and legal gymnastics, Schmidt only got a slap on the wrist.

CREW, however, said the situation is enough to earn Schmidt a spot on its “most corrupt” list. While the ultra-conservative congresswoman has tried to attack CREW’s credibility, the nonprofit group is well respected for its efforts to promoting ethics and accountability in government. And it certainly doesn’t only target Republicans: Of the 14 lawmakers picked for CREW’s list, four were Democrats.

So, getting on CREW’s list would be bad enough. But the cranky congresswoman might have to deal with yet another investigation.

The Federal Elections Commission (FEC) has decided to review Schmidt’s financial dealings with the Turkish group. The FEC has dubbed the case as “Matter Under Review No. 6494.” By law, the commission must try to resolve such cases through a confidential investigative process that culminates in a conciliation agreement with the respondent. If the process fails, however, both the commission and the respondent have the option to pursue the matter in court.

As part of its inquiry, the commission will determine whether Schmidt, her campaign committee or the committee’s treasurers --  which include her husband, Peter, a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney -- violated federal laws by accepting and not reporting the payments.

Despite all the negative publicity and questionable dealings, Ohio Republicans are trying to make it easier for Schmidt to get reelected next year. That’s because, under a redistricting plan on the fast track for approval in Columbus, the 2nd Congressional District would be reconfigured to make it more Republican. Schmidt’s district would lose Warren County and portions of northeast Hamilton County but gain Clinton County and part of Ross County. The net result would be a district that would be much more unlikely to elect a Democrat, given its voter registration and past preferences.

All might not be lost for those people who think Congress and the American people would be better served if Schmidt were replaced. At least one formidable opponent already has announced he will challenge her next year. Republican Brad Wenstrup, the Cincinnati podiatrist who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2009, plans to face off against Schmidt in the primary. Wenstrup is trying to court conservative groups like the Tea Party and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, in the hope of luring enough far-right votes in the GOP primary to sink Jean.

Whoever wins that match, it’s unclear which Democrat the victor will encounter in the general election that fall. Democrat Connie Pillich had announced a challenge, but the proposed redistricting would leave the Montgomery lawyer and Air Force veteran vying instead for the 1st District seat now held by Republican Steve Chabot.

There’s an old saying that you get the government you deserve. After all the investigations and shady dealings with agents of foreign governments, though, we have to think the residents of the 2nd District deserve better than Schmidt. The choice is in their hands.


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