A federal appellate court on Tuesday upheld the conviction of former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady’s top political strategist, Ken Smukler, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2019 for repeated violations of campaign-finance law.
In its ruling, a three judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that Smukler, 60, of Villanova, had coordinated what amounted to illegal campaign contributions to give clients, including Brady, an edge in two congressional races in 2012 and 2014.
However, the circuit judges vacated his conviction on two of the seven counts of which he was found guilty, ruling that the trial judge had failed to properly instruct the jury on the level of proof required to show Smukler had known about the laws he was violating when he broke them.
Those counts involved false statements the jury found Smukler caused two congressional candidates to make on campaign-finance filings to cover up the source of donations he helped to engineer.
Their dismissal did not challenge the overall theory of the case prosecutors had presented at his trial or affect his 18-month sentence, which he finished serving last year.
A political brawler who got his start serving as press secretary to Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. in his 1987 reelection campaign, Smukler had cemented a reputation as one of the city’s foremost political operatives before his conviction in 2019.
He helped elect dozens of Democratic candidates to city, state, and federal office, and oversaw Brady’s political messaging and strategy for more than a decade.
Brady, the longtime chair of Philadelphia’s Democratic Party, narrowly avoided being charged himself in the case that landed Smukler in prison. It involved a $90,000 payoff he helped coordinate to persuade the congressman’s 2012 primary challenger, former Municipal Court Judge Jimmie Moore, to withdraw from the race.
Both Smukler and Brady maintained there was nothing illegal about the payment to Moore. But the jury found that the payment constituted an illegal campaign contribution.
Smukler was also convicted in a separate scheme involving funds earmarked for a general election that he illegally spent while running former U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies’ 2014 primary campaign.
Margolies lost to U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle in the Democratic primary. And jurors concluded that Smukler solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal donations to repay general election donors whose money had been misspent.
He recruited straw donors, including Margolies herself, to hide the source of those funds. She later testified against Smukler at trial under a grant of immunity from prosecution.
“Having fully served his sentence,” Smukler’s attorney Peter Goldberger said in a statement on the Third Circuit’s ruling Tuesday, “Mr. Smukler is ready to put this episode behind him and will have no further comment.”