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Bob Brady aide ‘deliberately flouted’ campaign laws, prosecutor says as trial opens

Ken Smukler, a top political adviser to U.S. Rep Bob Brady employed "no-holds-barred, anything goes tactics" over the course of two congressional campaigns in illegal schemes to give his candidates an unfair advantage that "undermined the fundamental integrity and fairness of our democratic process," a prosecutor said Thursday in federal court in Philadelphia.

Ken Smukler, a political strategist for U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, and his lawyer Brian McMonagle, right, exit Federal Court, after an arraignment in 2017.
Ken Smukler, a political strategist for U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, and his lawyer Brian McMonagle, right, exit Federal Court, after an arraignment in 2017.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

A political adviser to U.S. Rep. Bob Brady flouted campaign laws and employed "no-holds-barred, anything-goes tactics" over two congressional campaigns to give his clients an unfair advantage that "undermined the fundamental integrity and fairness of our democratic process," a federal prosecutor said Thursday.

But the defense lawyer for Ken Smukler said he never committed or intended to commit a crime, even when he routed $90,000 to Brady's Democratic primary rival in 2012 — a payment prosecutors assert was intended to persuade the challenger to drop out of the race.

A jury of six men and six women heard both sides as Smukler's trial on conspiracy, obstruction, campaign finance violations, and other counts opened in Philadelphia.

The trial, expected to last up to three weeks before U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois, not only could entangle some familiar political names, but will also offer a glimpse into the campaign workings of Brady, a top power broker in the region who's retiring this year after two decades in Congress.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric L. Gibson told jurors that Smukler, 58, of Villanova, was focused on gaining "personal political power for his candidates and by extension himself" while working on Brady's 2012 successful reelection bid, and in advising former Rep. Marjorie Margolies in her failed House bid two years later.

Gibson described Smukler, a lawyer himself, as "an experienced, high-priced, 30-year veteran of political campaigns involving some of the most powerful politicians in the Philadelphia region" who knew exactly what he was doing — not a "volunteer college intern knocking on doors for a political campaign on their summer vacation."

In 2012, Gibson said, Smukler and others conspired to pay off Brady's challenger, former Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Jimmie Moore, so he would drop out of the race. The $90,000 Smukler routed to the Moore campaign, which had accrued tens of thousands of dollars in debt, exceeded federal limits on contributions one campaign could make to another, Gibson said.

Smukler disguised the payments as a purchase of a poll — which the Brady campaign already possessed — and for phantom consulting work done by Moore's campaign manager, according to the prosecutor.

But defense lawyer Brian McMonagle offered jurors a different account. He said Smukler bought the poll from Moore at Brady's instruction — and that because Moore, not his campaign, personally owned the survey, the payment wasn't an illegal campaign contribution.

McMonagle argued the congressman wanted exclusive rights to the survey so it wouldn't see the light of day — it showed he was unpopular in certain areas of Philadelphia. Had the poll's results been made public, it "could have destroyed" Brady, McMonagle said.

He also disputed the prosecution's assertion that Smukler had cooked up some illicit scheme. After all, he noted, the whole thing began when former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. brokered a meeting between Brady and Moore, who was running out of money and wanted to drop out of the race.

"Goode. Moore. Brady. They meet. Guess who's not at the meeting?" McMonagle told jurors. Pointing to Smukler, he said, "Him!"

Repeating the congressman's name three times, McMonagle said it was Brady who agreed to help Moore by saying he'd purchase the poll.

"Brady tells his adviser, I need you to legally buy Moore's poll … and I need you to hire his campaign manager, Carolyn Cavaness,'" McMonagle said, adding there was nothing illegal or unusual about that arrangement.

Despite McMonagle's invoking his name, there was no suggestion that Brady will end up on the witness stand.

For months, the FBI investigation had threatened to ensnare the congressman, who also is chairman of Philadelphia's powerful Democratic City Committee.

Shortly after the authorities filed charges against Smukler and fellow Brady aide Donald "D.A." Jones in October 2017, investigators asked a judge to approve a search of the congressman's personal email account. And an affidavit signed the next month by an FBI agent identified Brady as an active participant in the criminal scheme.

But ultimately Brady was not charged, and in January he announced he wouldn't seek reelection, saying he wanted to spend more time with family.

The witness list will, however, include Jones, Moore, and Cavaness. Each have pleaded guilty to charges related to the scheme.

Jurors might also hear from Margolies. In new charges filed in March, prosecutors accused Smukler of facilitating and concealing illegal contributions to her 2014 campaign — a bid to reclaim a House seat she won in 1992.

As Margolies' 2014 campaign ran out of money in the Democratic primary, prosecutors say, it illegally tapped contributions that had been earmarked for the general election.

To hide the scheme, Smukler allegedly solicited $225,000 from his brother and a friend and routed the money through his companies to the campaign, which falsely described the transfers as reimbursements. The indictment says those were illegal straw donations.

Smukler also caused the Margolies campaign to obstruct an investigation by the Federal Election Commission, according to the indictment.

McMonagle said Thursday that Smukler had borrowed money from his friend and brother so that the campaign could repay donors who had contributed to Margolies' general election account.

Margolies was granted immunity to testify before the grand jury in the case, according to court papers. On Thursday, the prosecutor promised the trial jurors they would hear from the former congresswoman.