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In testimony, Bob Brady aide punches back at prosecutors

Ken Smukler's pugnacious performance as he testified in his own defense Tuesday could determine whether a federal jury acquits or convicts him in the next several days on charges including violations of campaign finance law and making false statements to authorities.

FILE PHOTO – Ken Smukler, a political strategist for U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, speaks with the media outside the federal courthouse in Philadelpha on Oct. 25, 2017.
FILE PHOTO – Ken Smukler, a political strategist for U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, speaks with the media outside the federal courthouse in Philadelpha on Oct. 25, 2017.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

In full-throated and often combative court testimony Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady's top political adviser denied that he flouted federal campaign-finance laws to win elections and declared government claims to the contrary to be "absurd."

Ken Smukler balked when asked whether he ever believed – as prosecutors have contended – that  $90,000 he helped funnel to a Brady rival in 2012 was an illegal campaign contribution.

"Never," he said. "I did not, and nobody who knows campaigns and politics would, either."

He bristled at government assertions that he broke laws to raise money to reimburse contributions that were spent improperly by Democratic House candidate Marjorie Margolies in 2014.

"Who's the victim?" he asked. "Who here committed a crime?"

And before his impassioned five hours on the witness stand concluded Tuesday, Smukler teared up in frustration, recalling the day last year FBI agents showed up at his door.

"I really thought that if I didn't cooperate," he said, "that they would put me in handcuffs."

Smukler's pugnacious performance – during which he often pounded his finger into the witness stand or jabbed it into the air to emphasize a point – could determine whether a federal jury acquits or convicts him in the next several days on charges including violations of campaign-finance law and making false statements to authorities.

In three weeks of trial, prosecutors have repeatedly accused Smukler, 58, of Villanova, of helping to cover up Brady's $90,000 payoff in 2012 to primary challenger Jimmie Moore by falsely claiming the money was meant to purchase a poll and to hire one of Moore's campaign staffers.

He also stands accused of facilitating illegal contributions to Margolies' 2014 primary run, to hide her improper spending of money restricted for use in the general election.

But as he bounded toward the witness stand Tuesday in front of a full federal courtroom in Philadelphia, it was clear he had been itching for his opportunity to respond.

"If you called the [Federal Elections Commission] and made this argument, they would find it absurd," he said at one point, referring to the government's theory of the case. "They would say, 'What are you talking about?' "

Smukler's animated demeanor would have been instantly recognizable to those who have tangled with him on the campaign trail at any point in his three-decade career as one of the city's most prominent operatives in Democratic circles.

A self-described "failed lawyer," he got his start in campaign politics at the side of former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode. He helped elect Margolies in her first run for Congress in 1992. And after meeting Brady in 2006, he has overseen political messaging and strategy for the congressman ever since.

It was in that capacity, Smukler said Tuesday, that Brady approached him in 2012 to help implement an agreement he had cemented with Moore, buying his exit from their primary race that year.

"He hands me a list [of Moore's campaign debts] and says we need to take care of Jimmie Moore," Smukler said. Quoting Brady, he added: "Ninety thousand, that's what I want to do with Jimmie Moore."

Smukler told jurors it was Brady's idea to pay $65,000 for the poll Moore commissioned. But he said the transaction was not concocted to circumvent limits on what one campaign could legally donate to another. Smukler insisted it was a legitimate purchase of something valuable to Brady's campaign — the ability to lock down potentially damaging field research that could hinder future reelection bids.

More important, he insisted, it was entirely legal.

"The value to Brady had nothing to do with Jimmie Moore," Smukler said Tuesday. "It was the opposition research that Jimmie Moore had pulled on Bob Brady … and built into the poll that [Brady] wanted to protect."

Smukler just as eagerly challenged other allegations lodged against him during the trial.

He insisted he wasn't the one who allowed Moore's former campaign manager, Carolyn Cavaness, to take $25,000 of Brady campaign money in a no-show job she was granted as part of the deal between the congressman and Moore. In fact, Smukler said Tuesday, when he pushed for the woman to be placed on the payroll of another Brady consultant, he suggested they find her a job to do.

"She's an African American reverend woman," Smukler said, recalling what he told another Brady campaign adviser. "Have her go into the African American areas of the district to community events and say she's working for Brady."

As for his involvement in the Margolies campaign, Smukler admitted that her camp had improperly spent money earmarked for the general election in an effort to win the 2014 primary contest eventually won by U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle.

But he scoffed at the government notion that he illegally raised funds later to hide that fact. His concern, Smukler told jurors Tuesday, was having enough cash on hand to repay general election donors who were legally entitled to refunds, after Margolies lost the primary race.

"They are trying to get me to admit that I committed some crime by refunding people back their money," he said.

Still, nothing Tuesday appeared to stoke Smukler's considerable ire more than his belief that he had been mistreated by the Justice Department.

Prosecutor Richard Pilger's attempts to cross-examine him quickly descended into a stalemate — with the lawyer asking the same questions repeatedly and Smukler refusing to back down or change his answers.

And given the opportunity by his own attorney, Brian McMonagle, to describe a five-hour interview he gave FBI agents last year, Smukler became emotional.

"I've got my wife and child in the next room, and I have FBI agents telling me I'm lying and I can go to jail. Think about that for a moment," he said, stabbing his finger into the witness stand.

Pilger shot up from his chair to object.

"I agree," Smukler shot back. "It was objectionable!"

The trial is scheduled to continue Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois.