Jury continues deliberation in VanMeter-Smart bribery case

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

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The bribery solicitation trial of a former deputy health commissioner and a nursing home owner is headed for a conclusion in federal district court.

Despite prosecution arguments that it was a simple case, a jury of eight men and four women deliberated for four hours Tuesday without reaching a verdict in the case against longtime state Health Department official Brent VanMeter and nursing home owner James R. Smart of Wewoka.

U.S. District Judge Ralph G. Thompson sent jurors home about 5:30 p.m. with instructions that they resume their deliberations at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

In closing arguments, 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 a taped 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."

The government alleges that VanMeter solicited a $1,000 bribe from Smart to solve a financial problem Smart faced because of how five of his nursing homes had been certified to receive federal money.

Prosecutors presented evidence that VanMeter gambled heavily and was in need of cash.

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

Defense attorneys said the government failed to establish that a bribe was consummated.

Burck Bailey, attorney for Smart, said the critical conversation of April 17 was taken out of context and 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.

VanMeter's attorney, Mack 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."

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.

Neither defendant took the stand in the trial, which began on Oct. 10. In fact, Martin presented no witnesses and Bailey presented only five.

In testimony last week, the defendants discussed a new certification letter that would be backdated so Smart's homes could qualify for certain government payments.

The government charges that a financial manager at Smart's nursing homes wrote a phony replacement letter asking the state health agency to rescind a previous certification request that would cost the Smart company thousands of dollars.

In one FBI tape, Smart tells VanMeter that he had "half the package" ready for VanMeter to pick up and he would get his brother to supply the other half.

The word "money" was not used in the conversation, nor in May 2 conversations when VanMeter went to meet Smart in Wewoka.

The government believes VanMeter was given money by Smart when he gave the nursing home owner a ride to let a house painter into his house in Wewoka.

Defense attorneys noted that the government had proved that VanMeter only had $132 on him when he was arrested later at the health agency.

A teller at an off-track betting site testified that VanMeter bet about $400 the afternoon of May 2 after he had left Wewoka, where he met with Smart.