Accused lawmaker’s former patron pushes for Illinois House punishment

June 7, 2012

By Chip Mitchell and Sam Hudzik

The former political patron of state Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago) says Illinois lawmakers have not moved fast enough to punish him for allegedly taking a bribe.

Secretary of State Jesse White said Wednesday he was “happy” a panel of Smith’s colleagues had decided to advance a case that could eventually oust him from the House.

“I think there is a price to pay,” said White, a longtime 27th Ward committeeman who is backing a third-party candidate in an attempt to unseat Smith in November’s election.

A federal indictment accuses Smith, 48, of accepting $7,000 for supporting a childcare center’s application for a $50,000 state grant. The deal turned out to be an FBI sting.

A seven-page report from a special House committee, a bipartisan panel chaired by Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), says Smith “abused the power of his office by participating in a scheme to obtain a personal benefit in exchange for his official acts.”

The disciplinary case now moves to another committee that will decide whether to recommend punishment to the full House. The lawmakers could exonerate, censure, reprimand or expel Smith.

“Personally it saddens me,” Nekritz said, “to go through this process with one of our members.”

An expulsion would make Smith the first member ousted from the House since 1905, when Frank Comerford (D-Chicago) lost his seat on charges he damaged his colleagues’ reputations by complaining about corruption among lawmakers.

Smith’s attorney, Victor Henderson, said Wednesday the House should not take evidence from the feds at face value. “This is J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI,” Henderson said. “This is the same FBI that wiretapped Martin Luther King.”

Henderson labeled a federal informant at the case’s center a “con man” and said the House disciplinary process was moving forward without enough information. Henderson said the lawmakers should wait for the criminal case to play out.

Despite the bribery charge, Smith won his March primary in a landslide vote. Ousting him from the House would not remove him from the November ballot or block voters from returning him to the seat.

In that event, the state constitution would protect Smith from a second expulsion “for the same offense” but he could apparently face another disciplinary process.

Nekritz said she and other committee members were pushing for discipline now because they did not know how long the federal prosecution would take. “Our duty,” she said, “is to respect and protect the integrity of the House and the members that serve there.”

“The committee felt unanimously that it was . . . important to proceed on the basis of the information we had,” Nekritz said.