A Republican operative’s death in Rochester

By Mike Kaszuba

Documents found in Peter Smith’s Minnesota motel room last year only hinted at his role as a Republican operative who specialized in political opposition research on Bill and Hillary Clinton.  However, the work that Smith was reportedly doing prior to his death in May of 2017 has intrigued both reporters and congressional investigators.

Last month, Saint Paul-based non-profit Public Record Media (PRM) obtained an investigative file from the Rochester, Minnesota Police Department detailing Smith’s apparent suicide by asphyxiation.  The file included many previously-reported aspects of his death, yet also left some basic questions unanswered.  

A note allegedly from Smith – found in his motel room near the Mayo Clinic – stated that he was in ill health and that his death involved “no foul play whatsoever.”  But the police file also stated that Smith left instructions that his wife not be called concerning his death, and also noted that Smith had not maintained a residence in Chicago in fifteen months.  In addition, Smith’s son-in-law told police that he did not know how Smith got to Rochester.  He explained that Smith did not own a car, and none of the family cars were missing.

The son-in-law, William Ransom, further added that Smith did have a laptop computer “but that it was missing.”  The police file stated that it was “unknown” whether Smith had a laptop at the motel in Rochester, and further stated that photos taken by investigators did not show one at the scene.

Reported e-mail search sparked interest in death

From the outset, Smith’s death stirred interest due to his political work.  A two-paragraph summary contained in the police file said that “the focus of his national political campaign activity since 1992 has been on independent expenditures, including Troopergate disclosures involving President Clinton.”

But Smith’s political activity had continued beyond “Troopergate” – the 1990s-era scandal that dogged then-President Clinton and raised questions about whether state police troopers in Arkansas had arranged sexual liaisons for Clinton when he was governor.

A month after his suicide, the Wall Street Journal published a report stating that Smith had more recently mounted a campaign to obtain Hillary Clinton’s e-mails from when she served as U.S. Secretary of State under President Obama – asserting that they may have been stolen from her private server, possibly by Russian hackers.  The paper reported that Smith’s efforts occurred in 2016, while Hillary Clinton was the Democratic presidential nominee opposite Republican Donald Trump.

The Wall Street Journal reported that it had interviewed Smith approximately 10 days before his death.

Smith also told the Wall Street Journal that he had received “batches” of e-mails given to him by hackers, but because he said he was not sure of their authenticity, he urged the groups to give them instead to WikiLeaks – the international group known for publishing previously secret documents.  During the late stages of the 2016 presidential campaign, Wikileaks published e-mails and other internal documents from the Democratic National Committee, as well as from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta.  

Additionally, the Wall Street Journal reported that Smith implied he may have been working with Michael Flynn – then a senior advisor to Trump’s campaign who later served briefly as the president’s national security advisor.  Trump fired Flynn shortly after taking office, and Flynn has since pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents over contacts he had with the Russian ambassador shortly after Trump’s 2016 election victory.

Five months after his suicide, Smith again appeared in news headlines.  ABC-TV reported in late October that the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had requested documents from Smith’s estate as it investigated possible Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election.  Shortly afterward, the Chicago Tribune reported that the U.S. House Intelligence Committee had also interviewed at least one person whom Smith had contacted in his attempt to get Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.

Congressional reports on Russian election interference 

However, two congressional reports on the 2016 election – both released this year – did not mention Smith.

In April of this year, the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a 253-page report on possible Russian interference in the 2016 elections.  The report, parts of which were heavily redacted, stated among other findings that a “Russian active measures campaign [during the 2016 presidential contest] against the United States was multifaceted. It leveraged cyberattacks, covert platforms, social media, third-party intermediaries, and state-run media. Hacked material was disseminated through this myriad network of actors with the objective of undermining the effectiveness of the future administration.” The report, however, downplayed the idea that the aim of the Russian campaign was to tilt the 2016 election to President Trump.

In addition, the House report stated that “while the committee found no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded, coordinated, or conspired with the Russian government, the investigation did find poor judgment and ill-considered actions by the Trump and Clinton campaigns.”

The lengthy report had a four-page listing of “referenced persons” in the document but did not list Smith by name.  However, at least three of the names for persons whose last names began with the letter “S” were redacted.

But the House Committee’s report did have a one-sentence reference that addressed what the Wall Street Journal stated that Smith was probing regarding Hillary Clinton.  “The Committee did not receive evidence that the emails from Clinton’s private server were stolen by the Russians – or anyone else,” the report read.

The House report was followed by another congressional report – this time from the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – which more pointedly stated that the aim of Russian activity was to benefit Trump.

Earlier this month, the Senate Select Committee released an initial seven-page summary that concurred with U.S. intelligence officials who claimed that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.  We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

The Senate Committee summary – like the House report — did not make any reference to Smith.  Text messages sent to the congressional intelligence committees by PRM seeking comment about inquiries regarding Smith were not answered as of the time of publication.

Rochester police file addresses death by suicide

Meanwhile, Rochester police documents indicated that Smith’s suicide was meticulously planned and was, according to notes apparently left behind by Smith, related to his failing health.

The police file revealed that he left a note addressed specifically to the Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner’s Office, and tried to make sure his death did not create any suspicions.  “Sorry to have involved you and appreciate your assistance,” he wrote.  “No foul play whatsoever – all self inflicted.  No party assisted or had knowledge as an accomplice before the fact.

“Reason is recent bad turn in health since January, 2017,” a note attributed to Smith read.  “Timing relates to life insurance of $5 million expiring.”  A partial copy of Smith’s term life insurance policy was part of the police file, as was Smith’s passport.

The police documents revealed that Smith included his Illinois living will declaration, and asked to be cremated.  A list of “personal wishes” found in Smith’s room was signed on March 29 – more than a month before he was found dead, and several weeks before he was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal.

According to the police file, Smith had checked into the Aspen Suites motel on May 5, and his body was found nine days later.  According to the file, a hotel worker told police that Smith had extended his stay on several occasions.

The file also showed that Smith apparently committed suicide by placing a plastic bag over his head, with a tube that led from the bag to a nearby tank filled with helium.  The documents also stated that a Wal-Mart receipt was found in Smith’s room, and surveillance video at a local Wal-Mart store showed a man resembling Smith buying at least one helium tank the day before he was found dead.

Police files noted that in the days before his death, Smith was observed using a printer in the hotel’s business center – and also acting anxious.  “I noticed that he was sort of pacing,” said James Wright, a witness who was interviewed by police.  Wright said he saw Smith in the hotel’s breakfast area earlier in the morning of the day when he was found dead.  “He would get up from his chair, walk over to the newspapers, then go back to his chair and sit down for about 30 seconds and then get up and walk over to the newspapers again,” Wright added.  “It seemed like he had a lot on his mind,” he added.

Hotel employee Chen Jin, who was working at the hotel’s front desk, told police she remembered seeing Smith working in the hotel’s business center using its computer and printer the evening before he was found dead.

“When he left he said to me ‘tomorrow is my last day’,” she told police.  “I assumed he was referring to checking out.”

PRM seeking FBI records related to Smith

After Smith’s death, PRM submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), seeking access to agency records about the deceased political operative.  In a letter dated October 16, 2017, the agency noted that it had been “unable to identify any main file records” responsive to the request.  PRM has since filed an administrative appeal asking for an expanded search for records related to Smith.