Finding could lead to lawmaker’s expulsion
CHICAGO – A Chicago Democrat accused of accepting a $7,000 bribe in a federal indictment could become the first Illinois House member in a century to face expulsion after a legislative committee Wednesday concluded there is enough evidence to justify further action.
The special investigative body found sufficient grounds for lawmakers to begin a procedure against Rep. Derrick Smith that is akin to a trial. Within a month, 12 of Smith’s colleagues – six Democrats and six Republicans – will convene to effectively act as jurors; two others will serve as prosecutors.
House rules don’t lay out a precise road map, so lawmakers will look for guidance elsewhere, including from former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment in 2009, said Rep. Dennis Reboletti, a member of the committee that investigated Smith by drawing largely on the indictment.
“The precedents for all this are so scant,” said the Elmhurst Republican.
The last Illinois House member expelled was in 1905, when representatives voted, 121-13, to oust Frank D. Comerford. According to the allegation at the time, Comerford besmirched the good name of his colleagues by saying publicly that corruption among lawmakers was rampant.
Smith, 48, has pleaded not guilty in federal court to allegations he took the bribe for backing a $50,000 state grant application on behalf of a day care center that turned out to be fictitious. It was an FBI sting with an undercover informant wearing a recorder, authorities said.
The panel that will take up Smith’s case in the state House will determine a fitting punishment, which could include reprimand, censure or expulsion. In a last step, two-thirds of the full House would have to confirm any decision.
Rep. Jim Durkin, one of the two members appointed Wednesday to present the evidence against Smith to the 12 panelists, was also the ranking Republican on the Blagojevich impeachment committee.
If the House goes so far as to throw Smith out, there is a chance he could walk back in and take his seat in a matter of months. That’s because Smith won his primary race earlier this year, and no matter what action the House takes, he can stay on the ballot in November.
If he wins the election and retakes his seat, the House’s hands may be tied as far as trying to expel him a second time. The Illinois Constitution says a “member may be expelled only once for the same offense,” though that could leave the door open for expelling him on a different but related offense.
In the case 107 years ago, Comerford ran and won the election held to fill the vacancy left by his expulsion; he retook and kept his old seat, according to the Illinois General Assembly’s research division.
If Smith is convicted at his criminal trial in federal court – which likely won’t take place until late this year or even next year – he could potentially end up going to prison for up to a decade.
Appearing before the investigative committee last month, Smith declined to speak. His attorney, Victor Henderson, accused the government of relying on “manufactured documents and other fake information in their zeal to create an alleged crime.”
Reacting to the committee’s findings Wednesday, Henderson chided the panel for reaching a conclusion without the benefit of all the evidence gathered by federal prosecutors.
“When all the information is available ... people will have a much different view of this case,” he said.
The chairwoman of the six-member committee, Rep. Elaine Nekritz, told reporters the decision to recommend further action was unanimous.
“None of use took any joy in reaching this decision,” the Northbrook Democrat said. “But we know it was the right decision.”
Democratic leaders were shocked when Smith, who was appointed to his House seat to fill a vacancy, was arrested on the bribery charge just before Illinois’ March primary. Still, they encouraged voters to back Smith because his Democratic primary opponent was a former Republican official.
Once he won with an overwhelming majority, Democrats switched course and party leaders from across the state began calling for him to resign.
Smith has no intention of stepping down, his lawyer said.
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