VanMeter, Smart convicted of bribery

Wednesday, October 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A federal jury on Wednesday convicted former deputy Health Commissioner Brent VanMeter and a nursing home owner on bribery charges.

The jury found that VanMeter had sought a $1,000 bribe from James R. Smart of Wewoka to solve a financial problem Smart faced over how five of his nursing homes had been certified to receive federal money. Smart was convicted of agreeing to pay the money.

Jurors deliberated about 6 1/2 hours over two days, delivering the verdict about a half hour after asking for a recorder to review taped testimony.

There was no reaction from the defendants, but VanMeter looked intently at jurors as U.S. District Judge Ralph G. Thompson thanked them for their service.

VanMeter had no comment as he left the courthouse with his attorney, Mack Martin, who said they obviously were disappointed.

Martin said the jurors had "a very difficult job and I'm sure they tried to do their best. We're going to go back to the office and talk about what happened today."

The conviction carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

U.S. Attorney Dan Webber wouldn't comment on any presentencing negotiations that may occur between the government and the defense, but said prosecutors would "seek sentencing that will reflect the seriousness of the crime."

VanMeter was in charge of nursing home regulation at the time FBI agents arrested him at his office May 2 and seized scores of documents. The arrest helped uncover a state Health Department scandal that has led to the firing or resignation of 30 agency employees.

With the verdict, the government is going to step up its investigation of corruption at the Health Department and more indictments are expected, Webber said. He said he hoped the verdict would help restore public confidence in one of the state's largest and most important agencies.

Webber noted that the verdict came just six months after the April 17 taped conversation in which the crime occurred.

"We moved very hard to try to get this case before the court and now we'll intensify our efforts in other parts of the investigation," he said.

Jerry Regier, the agency's interim director, said the verdict "certainly confirms efforts we are making at the department to continue bringing these issue to light for the public."

He declined comment on the status of investigations into alleged wrongdoing by other nursing home operators in the state or Health Department workers.

Two former agency workers have been indicted by a state multicounty grand jury that accused them of being "ghost"

employees who received state paychecks but did little or no work.

Neither VanMeter nor Smart took the stand in the trial, which began on Oct. 10. Martin presented no witnesses and Smart's attorney, Burck Bailey, presented only five.

In closing arguments Tuesday, prosecutors said they had proven a simple proposition that VanMeter solicited a bribe and Smart agreed to pay it.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerome Holmes stressed that jurors need not determine that any money had changed hands between the defendants.

"When both men agreed to help each other with their problems, they committed a crime," Holmes said during his closing argument.

He referred to the April 17 conversation between the men when Smart said he had a $50,000 problem and Van Meter said, "I'll take 2 percent of that."

Prosecutors presented evidence that VanMeter gambled heavily and was in need of cash. Defense attorneys said the government failed to establish that a bribe was consummated.

Bailey said the critical conversation of April 17 was taken out of context and he asked jurors to consider how what they say on a daily basis could be misinterpreted.

"I submit the evidence is that Jim Smart did not offer a bribe, did not pay a bribe," the attorney said.

Bailey said the government's case was about correcting a problem that Smart had because of "bureaucratic bungling" and was not about corruption.

Martin argued the government smeared his client with tapes showing he engaged in gambling and locker-room talk.

"Show me the money -- that's all they had to do, but they didn't, ladies and gentlemen, Martin said.

Martin said VanMeter was "a problem solver" who was just trying to help Smart with conflicting government regulations.

Arlene Joplin, assistant U.S. attorney, ended the government's arguments by telling the jury the case "is as clear as it seemed at first impression."

Joplin said VanMeter used his power to control employees of the Health Department. "He lied to them," she said. "Why? He's doing it because he wants the money, not to solve the problem."