SWEET: Senate panel to study Chicagoans’ ties to Trump-Russia scandal

SHARE SWEET: Senate panel to study Chicagoans’ ties to Trump-Russia scandal

President Donald Trump meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg, Germany. | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – An adjunct faculty member at the Illinois Institute of Technology and a recently deceased Lake Forest business executive who played a key role in disclosing sexual misconduct allegations against President Bill Clinton in the 1990s have surfaced as players in the Trump Russia scandal.

The Chicago Sun-Times has learned that the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign and whether there was collusion with the Trump campaign,  is “very interested” in the opposition research operation put together by Peter W. Smith, the Lake Forest resident who died on May 14, and his business associate, John J. Szobocsan, who this summer is teaching an investment banking course in the masters of finance program at IIT.

“The committee will want to speak with or get documents from everybody associated with the Peter Smith operation,” a source close to the committee told the Sun-Times.

Szobocsan’s attorney, Merrick Rayle, told the Sun-Times this week that Szobocsan “is not in a position to be interviewed, thanks very much.”

Smith, who died at the age of 81, took his decades long loathing for Bill and Hillary Clinton to his grave.

The Chicago Tribune reported Thursday that Smith committed suicide in a Minnesota hotel room days after talking to a newspaper reporter about his efforts to obtain emails he suspected had been stolen from Hillary Clinton’s private email server, possibly by Russian hackers.

Smith and Szobocsan worked together in several businesses, including DigaComm, a private equity firm focusing on high tech investments, headquartered in the Wrigley Building, where Smith long kept an office.

I initially wrote about Smith in a March 31, 1998, Sun-Times article where Smith acknowledged for the first time his pivotal role in a December 1993 American Spectator Magazine story about Arkansas state troopers allegedly procuring women for then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton – including a woman named Paula.

Peter W. Smith | Sun-Times file photo

Peter W. Smith | Sun-Times file photo

That story led to the public naming of Paula Jones – who would go on to file a sexual-harassment lawsuit against Bill Clinton — and launched a chain of events that fed into the Ken Starr investigation and eventually Clinton’s 1998 House impeachment and Senate acquittal in 1999.

Even though the Spectator piece contributed to imperiling Bill Clinton’s presidency, Smith told me in 1998, “I feel like a failure for not having it out before the 1992 election.”

In 2016, Smith, who had chased other conspiracy theories through the years, was hustling again, this time to determine if indeed he had bombshell news against Hillary Clinton he could get out before the November election.

He was on the search to find 33,000 emails then-Secretary of State Clinton had deleted from her private email server.

The Wall Street Journal’s Shane Harris disclosed on June 29 that Smith “mounted an independent campaign to obtain emails he believed were stolen from Hillary Clinton’s private server, likely by Russian hackers.”

Smith was interviewed by Harris about his effort to dig up hacked emails from Clinton’s private server about ten days before he died.

Though Smith told Harris his efforts were independent of the Trump campaign, Harris also reported that Smith had “implied” to others he was “working with” retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was Trump’s campaign national security advisor.

Flynn ended up being ousted as Trump’s National Security Advisor for not disclosing conversations he had with now-former Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.

A source for Harris’ story, Matt Tait, wrote about Szobocsan’s work with Smith in his own June 30 story about the episode in Lawfare, the online publication associated with Brookings, the non-profit public policy organization.

Tait, the CEO of a United Kingdom-based cybersecurity company and a former information security specialist at the GCHQ, a British intelligence agency, wrote when Smith first contacted him, “he mentioned that he had been contacted by someone on the “dark web” who claimed to have a copy of emails from Secretary Clinton’s private server.”

Whether Russia was a player didn’t matter.

“In my conversations with Smith and his colleague, I tried to stress this point,” Tait wrote. “If this dark web contact is a front for the Russian government, you really don’t want to play this game. But they were not discouraged. . . .

“Indeed, they made it quite clear to me that it made no difference to them who hacked the emails or why they did so, only that the emails be found and made public before the election.”

Szobocsan has no profile in Chicago or Illinois politics.

He taught at IIT’s Stuart School of Business between 2001 and 2005. He returned to IIT’s business school in 2011 and has been teaching graduate-level courses there ever since, IIT confirmed.

Szobocsan received an undergraduate degree in 1985 in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from Purdue University; in 1988 he earned a master’s in mechanical engineering and applied mathematics from the University of Michigan, moving on to the University of Chicago for an MBA in 1993 with a focus in finance, international business and strategy.

According to the website of another firm, Corporate Venture Alliances, LLC, Smith and Szobocsan were among the principals; one of the listed staffers was Jonathan Safron, who was an intern with the Illinois Republican Party for a few months in the 2014 election cycle.

A Tuesday Politico story identified Safron as Smith’s assistant last year, at a time when Smith was still trying to nail down the Hillary Clinton emails even after Tait stopped talking to Smith.

For more than 40 years, Smith overaw a string of venture investments through the years and was at one time a big donor to Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC, the conservative Heritage Foundation and the Republican National Committee.

There is no evidence, ex-FBI chief James Comey said in July 2016, that any of Clinton’s 33,000 deleted emails were hacked.

Rep. Mike Quigley D-Ill., a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence told me that he read the stories about Smith and “it sounds like we would want to talk to people who have knowledge of his activities.”

Smith’s obit included one his axioms: “There are no mistakes in life, only lessons learned.”

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