CHICAGO – A federal jury convicted Illinois state Rep. Derrick Smith of bribery and attempted extortion Tuesday for taking $7,000 from a purported day care operator seeking a state grant.
In a weeklong trial, prosecutors played secret recordings of the 50-year-old Chicago Democrat accepting 70 $100 bills – which he referred to as “cheddar” on tape – in exchange for a letter supporting a $50,000 state grant. The day care turned out to be fictitious and part of an FBI sting.
Smith, his hands folded at a defense table, showed no emotion as U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman read the guilty verdicts aloud. A family member walked over and patted him on the shoulder minutes later as court adjourned.
Outside court, a subdued Smith spoke to reporters for the first time since going to trial.
“We gave it a good fight,” he said. “God knows the truth. Jurors didn’t see what God saw.”
Asked what he’d say to his 10th District constituents, many of whom backed him even after he was arrested, Smith replied, “I represented them to the best of my ability.”
The case is the latest in Illinois’ inglorious history of politicians convicted of corruption, which includes the two previous governors, Republican George Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich.
Smith was released pending a sentencing hearing, when he will face up to 30 years in prison – a maximum of 10 for bribery and 20 for attempted extortion. The judge did not schedule a date for sentencing, but set a status hearing for Sept. 23.
One of Smith’s attorneys, Victor Henderson, said they hadn’t decided whether to appeal the verdicts.
The recordings that a campaign worker-turned-informant made for the FBI devastated Smith’s defense. In one played for jurors, Smith uses slang when talking about the handover of the bribe, asking, “How she going to get the cheddar to us?” In another he says, “I don’t want no trace of it.”
Prosecutors used Smith’s words against him in other ways, too.
Citing interview notes with Smith after his March 13, 2012, arrest, FBI agents told jurors how the distraught lawmaker admitted he took the bribe. He even brought agents to his bedroom, retrieved $2,500 in leftover bribe cash from a cedar chest at the foot of his bed and handed it over.
Smith once enjoyed staunch support from Democratic Party stalwarts in the state, including Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Secretary of State Jesse White.
But his House colleagues voted 100-6 to expel him after his 2012 arrest. He was reinstated, however, after winning his late-2012 election.
Smith lost his 2014 primary and was supposed to finish out his current term. But Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said Tuesday that Smith will lose his seat once the verdicts are formally entered, which usually happens within days of them being announced. Democratic committeemen from Smith’s district will appoint someone to the seat, Brown said.
Henderson’s main target in court was the informant, referred to only by his first name, Pete. He described him as a deadbeat and convicted felon who “set up” Smith for payments of up to $1,000 a week from the FBI.
“He’s a hustler,” the defense attorney told jurors during closing arguments Monday. He also accused federal investigators of being overzealous.
Smith on Tuesday portrayed himself as a victim as well, telling reporters, “I don’t know why I was singled out.”
But later in the day, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro said not launching an investigation after the informant told the FBI in 2011 that Smith was willing to take money for legislative action would have been “grossly negligent.”
In her closing, prosecutor Marsha McClellan also insisted no one led Smith astray against his will.
She cited another recording in which Pete counted aloud as he hands the cash to a seemingly jovial Smith in seven $1,000 stacks. The informant then jokingly chides Smith for not expressing gratitude, saying, “(You) didn’t even say thank you.”
McClellan said Smith’s easy, confident tone on the recordings illustrated he didn’t think he’d ever get caught.
“Never in a million years did he expect us to listen to him now,” she told jurors. “He never thought this day would come.”
Follow Michael Tarm at https://twitter.com/mtarm .