A federal jury Monday found U.S. Rep. Bob Brady's top political strategist, Ken Smukler, guilty of nine of 11 counts of repeatedly flouting campaign finance laws in a case that once threatened to ensnare the congressman himself.
Smukler, 58, who has helped dozens of Democrats win public office over the last 30 years, was convicted of coordinating multiple unlawful contributions and falsifying finance reports for candidates in back-to-back congressional races.
One of those campaigns — Brady's 2012 primary bid for reelection — ended with the abrupt withdrawal of his opponent after he was promised a $90,000 payoff, which jurors concluded that Smukler helped to pay.
The Villanova-based campaign strategist bowed his head and wiped his eyes as the jury of six men and six women announced its decision after about 12 hours of deliberation in federal court in Philadelphia.
The Justice Department now has won convictions and guilty pleas against four key players in the 2012 campaign — but, notably, Brady himself was not charged.
Smukler, walking from the courthouse after the verdict, declined to discuss the jury's decision. He was acquitted of two charges involving false statements made to the Federal Election Commission — one by Brady's campaign and one by Brady's campaign rival in the 2012 Democratic primary, Jimmie Moore, a former Municipal Court judge.
Smukler faces the possibility of a prison sentence at a hearing that U.S. District Judge Jan. E. DuBois set for March 13.
"The message here is if you have no regard for the election laws as a candidate or as an officeholder, then you should stay out of the arena," Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Gibson said outside the courthouse. "And political hired guns should follow the rules."
Monday's verdict came after a three-week trial and months of legal wrangling between Smukler — a political brawler who got his start serving as press secretary to Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. in his 1987 reelection campaign — and prosecutors, who described him as a "confident and cocky" operative who hoped to use his skills at spin and manipulation to escape his reckoning in court.
"Mr. Smukler's process is to admit what he has to, deny what he can," Gibson told jurors in his closing arguments Thursday. "When he's confronted with an inconvenient fact, he simply spins and spins and spins."
Smukler took the stand to defend himself and, in hours of combative testimony, repeatedly challenged the tactics of FBI investigators whom he described as desperate to find a crime where one did not exist. His lawyer, Brian McMonagle, asked again and again how Smukler could face charges for the 2012 primary transaction when Brady, the man who set up the deal, was never charged.
"Conspiracy my eye," McMonagle said in his closing pitch to the jury. "There was never any intention here to commit a crime. This wasn't some grand conspiracy. If there was, Brady would be sitting here."
Brady, who did not testify at the trial, has maintained since the investigation burst into public view last summer that the $90,000 he paid Moore was not an unlawful contribution. Instead, he described the funds as money deployed for legitimate campaign purchases — including to buy a poll Moore had commissioned before dropping out that exposed some of Brady's political weaknesses within his district.
The payment exceeded the $2,000 limit one campaign could give to another in a primary campaign that year.
Prosecutors described the congressman in court papers as having engaged in a conspiracy to commit campaign finance fraud. But while they ultimately secured Smukler's conviction Monday and wrung guilty pleas from Moore, Moore's former campaign manager, and another Brady aide — Donald "D.A." Jones — they quietly allowed the statute of limitations run out on charges the congressman could have faced last year.
The jury foreman, who would only give his first name, Paul, said Brady was not pertinent to jurors' deliberations. "I hope that out of this, all campaign managers and operatives will take away the message, you obey the law at all times," he said.
Brady's lawyer, Jim Eisenhower, declined to comment Monday.
Asked why Brady wasn't charged, Gibson told reporters that he could not "speak to internal deliberations for the department."
Months after investigators announced their first indictments in the case, Brady announced that he would not seek reelection. The congressman said at the time that he wanted to spend more time with family after two decades in Congress. He remains chairman of the powerful Philadelphia Democratic City Committee.
Smukler also was found guilty of charges tied to the campaign he managed after Brady's race against Moore — a 2014 bid by former U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies to reclaim a seat she held in the '90s representing parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.
Although Margolies, mother-in-law to Chelsea Clinton, was seen as an early front-runner – largely thanks to anticipated support from the Clintons – she ran out of money in a brutal four-way primary, and her campaign, witnesses said, illegally tapped donations earmarked for the general election in the hope of pushing her across the finish line.
Margolies lost the primary vote to U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, leaving her with insufficient funds to pay back those general election donors as required by law.
To hide the illegal spending and raise enough cash to refund contributors, witnesses said, Smukler solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal donations from his companies, his brother, and a friend — and then recruited straw donors, including Margolies herself, to hide the source of the money.
Jurors also found that Smukler obstructed a later investigation by the Federal Election Commission into those transactions.
Margolies — who testified against her former campaign manager under a grant of immunity from prosecution — maintained that at the time she didn't believe that she was doing anything illegal. Smukler said he did everything on the advice of the campaign's lawyer.
Gibson, the prosecutor, ultimately proved more persuasive.
"For two consecutive election cycles, this defendant's falsehoods took flight, making a mockery of the nation's election rules," he told jurors in his closing arguments. "Kenneth Smukler — a 30-year vet of high-stakes political wars — crossed the line."