SPRINGFIELD – In a gesture unseen in corruption-rich Illinois for more than a century, the state House expelled one of its members Friday for allegedly taking a bribe.
The vote to relieve former Rep. Derrick Smith of his duties was 100-6. But the Chicago Democrat, who faces a federal bribery charge, remains on the November ballot and could be re-elected to the same post.
Smith, who did not attend the session, said the vote saddened him. His attorney called the ouster a power grab.
Lawmakers – whom House rules do not hold to the same standards as a criminal court – found enough evidence that Smith "participated in a scheme" for personal gain through official action. In this case, federal prosecutors allege Smith took $7,000 in cash to write what he thought was a letter of support for a day care center's state grant application.
Immediately after the vote, House Speaker Michael Madigan said, "Mr. Clerk, please remove Rep. Derrick Smith from the roll of the House." The House has considered expulsion just three times since 1900 and last ousted a member in 1905.
At the Chicago office of his attorney, Smith said Friday afternoon the vote disappointed him.
"I am also sad because many of my colleagues did not wait to hear all the important evidence of the case before they voted against me," said Smith, who did not take questions from reporters. "My former colleagues did not know the whole truth."
A trial date has not been set for Smith, who pleaded not guilty in federal court.
Some argued the House was rushing its judgment on the lawmaker. But those in favor of showing Smith the door noted the gravity of the charge, transcripts of what an FBI agent swore in court are recorded conversations of Smith discussing the bribe and Smith's refusal to declare his innocence before two House investigating committees.
"People have said to me, what if it was entrapment? No matter what, he had these conversations," said Rep. Dennis Reboletti, R-Elmhurst. "His oath of office indicated he needed to do a lot more than enrich himself at the expense of Illinois taxpayers."
Ejecting an allegedly crooked state legislator doesn't seem like a big deal in Illinois, where criminal convictions of Chicago politicians have a long history and the last two governors – one Republican, one Democrat – are both serving federal prison sentences for corruption.
House members found themselves Friday in an unenviable position, speaking of their decision about Smith with solemnity, but an odd familiarity. Many were around about three years ago when the House impeached former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, later removed from office by the Senate and now serving 14 years in prison.
"This is not fun, but we have a greater responsibility," said Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie.
Smith, who has only attended legislative sessions a handful of times since his March arrest, was appointed to the seat to fill a vacancy in spring 2011. He easily won a primary election for the position just a week after he was arrested by FBI agents. Heavily financed in that race by Madigan, Smith had prominent Democrats' support even after his arrest.
But when Smith did not step down, Democrats – including embarrassed Smith mentor Secretary of State Jesse White – stepped up, calling futilely for Smith to resign and disappear. White and allies have put up a third-party candidate to challenge Smith in the fall.
The Illinois Constitution prohibits either house of the General Assembly from expelling a member more than once for the same offense. So, Smith could reclaim his seat by winning the election.
That's what happened the last time the House kicked out a member. Rep. Frank Comerford, also a Chicago Democrat, was ejected in 1905 after accusing his colleagues of corruption and besmirching their "good name and reputation." But Comerford won the special election called to fill his seat.
A prominent part of the case developed by the House Select Committee on Discipline centered on Smith's unwillingness to declare his innocence.
"If he had come to us and said 'That's not my voice, I never said those words, I never took that money,' I don't think we would have had enough evidence," said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored the expulsion resolution.
Smith's attorney, Victor Henderson, said his repeated requests to the House committees to gather more evidence were rebuffed.
"This, plain and simple, was an opportunity for the people down in Springfield to snatch the seat," Henderson said.
The resolution is HR1191.
Contact John O'Connor on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/apoconnor
Associated Press writer Jason Keyser contributed to this report from Chicago.