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FBI informant focus of Dem's bribery trial

Published: Thursday, May 29, 2014 11:15 p.m. CST • Updated: Thursday, May 29, 2014 11:58 p.m. CST
(AP photo)
Illinois state Rep. Derrick Smith (right) talks with his attorney Victor Henderson (left) as they enter federal court Wednesday for the beginning of jury selection in Smith's corruption trial in Chicago. The Chicago Democrat has been charged with accepting a $7,000 bribe in exchange for using his influence to obtain a state grant for a daycare center. The 50-year-old has pleaded not guilty. A bribery conviction carries a maximum 10-year prison term.

CHICAGO – Opening statements Thursday at an Illinois lawmaker’s federal bribery trial focused on a campaign worker-turned-FBI informant, referred to in court only by his first name, Pete, who secretly recorded state Rep. Derrick Smith allegedly seeking a $7,000 bribe.

Smith, a 50-year-old Chicago Democrat, is accused of accepting the bribe from a day care operative looking to secure a $50,000 state grant – though the facility was fictitious and part of an FBI sting.

Smith has pleaded not guilty to bribery, which carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.

As the 2012 election season loomed, the campaign worker went to the FBI offering to wear a wire and record Smith scheming to receive a bribe, prosecutor Michael Donovan told jurors at the Chicago trial.

In a transcript of one recorded conversation displayed by Donovan on a large courtroom screen, Smith rejects Pete’s suggestion that he accept the money in a traceable cashier’s check.

“OK. Cash?” responds the informant.

“Yeah,” the legislator answers, “I don’t want no trace of it.”

In another recorded conversation, Smith tells Pete he needs plausible deniability, saying, “I don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing, man.”

In the defense opening, Victor Henderson attacked the informant’s credibility, portraying him as a deadbeat and convicted felon looking to make a buck. The FBI paid him $25,000 for his cooperation, Henderson said.

“This case is not just about Rep. Derrick Smith,” the attorney told jurors. It was, he said, also about Pete and a lead FBI agent eager to make a name for himself by bringing down an Illinois representative.

In his remarks, Donovan also told jurors that Smith effectively confessed after his March 13, 2012, arrest. A distraught Smith told agents he had, in fact, taken a bribe, Donovan said.

Smith even brought agents to his home and retrieved $2,500 in leftover bribe money bound by paper clips from a cabinet at the foot of his bed. The $100 bills he handed to the agents were marked with the same serial numbers as the bribe money given to Smith days earlier, Donovan said.

Henderson, though, denied that Smith had confessed, saying he was expressing anger for having been “taken advantage of” by Pete.

“He never said he had taken a bribe. He said he’d ‘messed up,’” the attorney said.

Henderson described his client as someone who had “pulled himself up by the bootstraps,” going from a job with Chicago’s sanitation department to become a college graduate and elected official.

After Smith’s arrest, the House vote 100-6 to expel him. But he was reinstated weeks later after winning his late-2012 election. He lost his 2014 primary election and is finishing out his current term.

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