Idaho's 2nd CD candidate Bryan Smith's character, career on center stage

The polarizing attorney, debt collector and candidate for Congress has attracted money from national interest groups and attention from political pundits

sberg@idahostatesman.comApril 13, 2014 

  • ABOUT THE INCUMBENT

    Mike Simpson, a Blackfoot native, beat Democrat Richard Stallings in 1998 to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

    Simpson is squaring off against Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith in this year's Republican primary election. It's the stiffest challenge he's has faced since taking office.

    In his more than 15 years representing Idaho's 2nd Congressional District, Simpson has staked out positions that often put him at odds with the rest of Idaho's delegation. For example, he has embraced earmarks as an appropriate and effective way to steer money to good projects and programs in Idaho.

    For many hard-line fiscal conservatives, however, earmarks have come to symbolize careless spending of taxpayer money on useless pet projects.

    In 2008, with the national economy in a free-fall, Simpson voted in favor of a government bailout of banking institutions. Many economists say the bailout helped stabilize the country's credit markets and cushion a larger economic downfall.

    But Smith and the Club for Growth, a group backing Smith's candidacy, have criticized Simpson's bailout vote as evidence that he's "too liberal" and "wrong for Idaho."

    Tea party and other far-right groups also slammed Simpson over his vote last fall to end a government shutdown that spawned from a Republican effort to block the health care overhaul. Simpson followed that move with a vote in favor of a federal budget bill - the first in years - that he touted as restoring funding to the Idaho National Laboratory, one of Idaho's biggest employers and a landing spot for federal taxpayer money.

    Smith's campaign taunted Simpson for that vote, declaring him Idaho's "odd man out" because he was the only member of the Idaho delegation who voted to pass the budget.

  • SVEN BERG

    Sven has covered Boise city government and development for the Statesman since July 2012. He began his career as a reporter in October 2006, when he took a job with the South Idaho Press in Burley.

IDAHO FALLS - Bryan Smith is the kind of guy you want in your corner, but you hate him if he's on the other side.

Smith's supporters show an intense loyalty and dedication to him. They say he's fair, professional and competent.

People who don't like Smith really don't like him. They say he's a brute who's unmoved by the plight of people in his cross hairs, no matter how vulnerable they are.

Smith's fellow attorneys agree on one thing about him: He's aggressive.

Is his aggressiveness a good thing? Is he fair? Would he be an effective representative of Idaho's 2nd Congressional District? Among lawyers who are familiar with Smith, it's easy to find "yes" and "no" answers to each question.

FAMILY MAN

Smith entered the race last June to try to unseat eight-term Republican incumbent Mike Simpson, whose district includes most of Southern Idaho as well as Custer and Lemhi counties. He says that Simpson is too liberal for Idaho and that he hasn't done enough to rein in federal spending, short-circuit federal regulations or stop the Affordable Care Act.

Smith and his wife, Sharon, have five children and two grandchildren. They're active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Between 2009 and 2013, Bryan Smith served as first counselor in a student ward at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

The Smiths live in the Southpoint ward on a few acres about a mile south of the corner of Idaho Falls' Sunnyside Road and Rollandet Avenue. They grow hay and lavender on their land. He raises bees. She makes natural health products and is a skilled artist. She made a bronze plate with a raised image of a sheaf of wheat that hangs outside their front door.

"I really do feel that Sharon and I have had a chance to live the American dream," Smith said. "When I grew up, we never had mandates that if you didn't buy health (insurance) you'd get fined. We never had the kind of overreaching federal government that we have today in just about all aspects of our lives.

"It's going to take people who have tremendous resolve to stand up for what I would say are conservative principles in Washington, so that's why I'm in this race."

ATTENTION GAP

Outsiders seem to be the people paying the closest attention to Smith's campaign. National groups such as the hard-right Club for Growth, Citizens United and Senate Conservatives Funds have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into it.

Simpson, meanwhile, has attracted the endorsements of mainstream Republican supporters, such as the National Rifle Association and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Idaho Falls businessman Frank VanderSloot, a longtime supporter of conservative causes and a key ally in Mitt Romney's 2012 bid for the White House, has thrown his weight behind Simpson.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Simpson's campaign has raised almost 2 1/2 times as much money as Smith's and spent more than three times as much.

Political pundits are following the race closely, calling it one of the most important in the national midterm elections and a bellwether in the fight for control of the Republican Party.

But around Idaho Falls, where both candidates live, regular people don't seem to be paying too much attention. In local businesses and on the streets, many people don't even know who Smith is.

Fonya Morris' home on Holmes Avenue is one of the few in the city with yard signs promoting Smith or Simpson. Morris said the only reason she has a Smith sign is because the bishop of her LDS ward asked to put one there.

"I told him he could do it. I have no idea who the guy is," Morris said. "I'm not going to vote in this election. I just vote for presidents."

Efforts to contact that bishop were unsuccessful.

Another woman with a Smith yard sign said her neighbor asked permission to put it there.

The highest-profile Smith arrays are on ground owned by Union Pacific, Idaho Irrigation District and a canal company. Idaho Irrigation manager Richard Lockyear said he didn't give Smith permission to put the signs on his company's property, but he didn't object to it, either. Efforts to contact the other companies were unsuccessful.

Bruce Cook, who lives on 8th Street in Idaho Falls, has one sign in his yard that promotes Smith and another that reads "Retire Simpson." He said he'll vote against Simpson because the incumbent has stood by as the national debt exploded. Cook wishes Simpson had held the line in the Republicans' gambit last fall that shut down the government in an attempt to stop the health care act, a law Simpson has voted dozens of times to repeal.

ATTORNEY

Smith, 51, was born in Boise and raised in Nampa. His family traces its roots to the settling of Canyon County. He said the Johnston brothers, three heavily bearded bachelors whose home was a cabin that still stands in Caldwell's Memorial Park, are his ancestors.

Smith graduated from the University of Pacific's McGeorge School of Law in California in 1989. He practiced law in Northern California for a few years before moving his family to Idaho. In 2008, he established his own firm: Smith, Driscoll and Associates.

Smith's investigation of Idaho Falls city attorney Dale Storer in 2012 led to the disclosure of billing discrepancies on the part of Storer's law firm and to Storer's resignation from the city.

Simpson's campaign managers have made Smith's career their main focus in attack ads. They ridicule him for being a personal injury lawyer, but Smith downplayed that area of his practice. He said fewer than one in 100 cases his firm handles has to do with personal injuries.

Simpson's campaign has also pointed out that in 2003, Smith opposed a state tort reform bill that sought to lower limits on noneconomic damages and cap punitive damages in civil lawsuits. It was the kind of bill Republicans love and Democrats hate. Smith argued that the bill would discourage settlements between parties and lead to more trials.

He told the state Senate in March 2003 that Idaho needed some sort of tort reform but that the bill in question was counterproductive. Then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne signed the bill into law on March 26, 2003.

Smith stands by his opposition to the law.

"The state of Idaho already had tort reform," his campaign manager, Carrie Brown, wrote in an email Tuesday. "There was no need for additional tort reform. The tort reform that they proposed (in 2003) was not to stop frivolous lawsuits. It was to place caps on meritorious lawsuits."

'A GREAT ADVOCATE'

Lynden Kunde, of Iona, is a general contractor and former client of Smith's. He said Smith fought on his behalf to make an insurance company pay for damage to an apartment building under construction in Hailey. Like many of the people who know or who have worked with Smith, Kunde considers him fair and professional.

"Bryan is a great advocate. He does what he says and he says what he does," Kunde said. "He won't get caught up (in Washington) and he won't get bought off."

As a candidate, Smith has tried to rally his connections in Idaho's legal community to raise money. He sent a letter to fellow members of the Idaho Trial Lawyers Association that said Simpson had "declared a war on Idaho's attorneys" through attempts at federal tort reform. The letter asked for contributions of between $35 and $2,600 to "help send someone to Washington who is in touch with Idaho's values, the real concerns in daily Idaho life, and who will focus on solving the issues of today."

It's unclear how much money that letter helped Smith raise. Federal Election Commission records show 19 donors identified as attorneys or lawyers, seven of whom gave money within a month of the letter's date. By comparison, 34 individual contributors gave "homemaker" as their occupation; 17 put down "CEO" or "CEO/owner," and 225 said they were "retired."

Smith believes tort reform is not a federal issue. Each state should handle the issue, Brown said.

DEBT COLLECTOR

In 2001, Smith founded Medical Recovery Services, a collection firm that specializes in medical debt. He said the company grew out of his relationship with several clients who were doctors and wanted him to help them collect money their patients hadn't paid.

Diversified Equity Systems, another collection firm from which Smith earns money, was founded in 2010.

State records show that Medical Recovery Services and Diversified Equity Systems have been involved in more than 10,000 court cases across Idaho.

The collection companies work hand-in-hand with Smith's law firm. They buy debt from doctors, short-term lenders and other creditors. It's unclear how many cents on the dollar they pay. Smith, Driscoll and Associates sues the debtors who don't pay, often adding thousands of dollars in attorney fees to the amounts owed. Many of those debtors never respond, leading to default judgments and wage garnishments that sometimes trigger bankruptcies.

Judges often award less money in attorney fees than Smith, Driscoll and Associates claims. In one case, Ada County Magistrate Judge Patricia Young awarded $600 instead of the $4,765.76 the law firm asked for. Darren Simpson, a district judge in Bingham County, awarded $2,680 instead of $11,289.90 the firm asked for in a 2012 case. Bannock County District Judge Stephen Dunn awarded $2,356.66 instead of more than $12,000 that was requested.

Aaron Tolson, an Ammon-based bankruptcy lawyer, said some judges don't like Smith and sharply reduce the fees his company asks for.

"Sometimes he's just being penalized for his success," Tolson said.

BUSINESSMAN

The Better Business Bureau gave an "F" rating to Medical Recovery Services. In part, that rating was the result of three complaints to which the business didn't respond.

In 2008, Smith removed his name from Medical Recovery Services paperwork. As of 2013, he was still earning money from Diversified Equity Systems, according to a financial disclosure statement filed with the U.S. House of Representatives. He said he's no longer personally involved in collections.

"I don't even do them," he said in an interview with the Statesman on April 3. "There's a lawyer in my office that does that. I don't think I've done that for seven years, maybe."

But in the past year, Smith filed documents in at least 15 bankruptcy cases in which Medical Recovery Services is a creditor, according to federal and state court records. His law firm's filings name him as the lead attorney in at least six of the lawsuits - between 2009 and 2011 - that led to those bankruptcy cases.

"(Seven years ago) was when he left day-to-day operations of the company to another attorney in the firm," Brown said in an email Tuesday. "Certainly his name is on a few things, but he was and is not intimately involved in the daily operations."

Steve Taggart, a bankruptcy attorney in Idaho Falls, said Medical Recovery Services pushes people into bankruptcy because it's aggressive and inflexible. Taggart estimated that Medical Recovery Services cases have triggered between one-third and one-half of Bonneville County's bankruptcy filings in recent years.

"They're known for being extremely aggressive, not negotiating, no matter what the people's situation is," Taggart said. "A lot of your collection agencies will negotiate with people. (Medical Recovery Services is) known for not negotiating. It's basically, 'We want it all. And we want it now.' "

Medical Recovery Services' focus on unpaid medical bills means the company is collecting - or trying to collect - from vulnerable people, Taggart said. When people can't pay medical bills, it's usually because they couldn't afford insurance. Taggart said MRS, and particularly Smith, earned the reputation of being bullies in Eastern Idaho courtrooms.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Smith said. "In fact, what I would tell you is one of the reasons our business has grown is because of how benevolent and cooperative we've been. We know that these are doctors' patients, so we are very good about setting up payment terms with people. We are very patient.

"Now, that's not to say that everybody's going to be happy when you come asking to pay a bill. But all of the people we deal with, we have a very good track record and experience."

Tolson said Smith is both fair and effective in the courtroom. He thinks those qualities would translate to the U.S. House of Representatives.

"When I confront him with something that's not fair, he's always really good to work it out," Tolson said. "He's pretty practical."

NEIGHBORS

The most remarkable collection of pro-Simpson signs in Idaho Falls is along 5th West on the way to Smith's home. Some of Smith's neighbors asked Simpson campaign staffers for the signs.

Sam Bennett, who lives just north of Smith, is one of them. He said he's not a Republican and has no deep love for Simpson's policies, but he deeply dislikes his neighbor.

Bennett didn't mince words. He called Smith "pompous," "arrogant" and a few other things that can't be printed. He said Smith habitually trespassed on his property by using a road on its southern edge without permission. Smith has been confrontational at every turn, he said.

"You can't reason with people like this. You can't," Bennett said. "It's just series after series of bad judgments. And bad judgments isn't the kind of thing you want to send (to Washington) to represent you."

Paul Petersen lives just north of Bennett and has the exact opposite attitude about Smith. A few winters ago, Petersen said, Smith's son slid off the road and into a couple of trees at the front of Petersen's property. Smith offered to replace the trees and then helped cut them up when spring came.

Petersen said Smith's communication skills and fairness would serve Idaho well if he's elected.

"He's a straight shooter. When he says he's going to do something, he gets it done," Petersen said. "He doesn't pull any punches. When he wants to voice his opinion, he makes sure it's known."

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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