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Indicted Rep. Smith refuses to answer House panel’s questions

State Rep. Derrick Smith arrives Federal Building for an arrainment hearing. He is accused accepting $7000 bribe. Monday April 30

State Rep. Derrick Smith arrives at the Federal Building for an arrainment hearing. He is accused of accepting a $7,000 bribe. Monday, April 30, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 10, 2012 8:02PM

SPRINGFIELD — Indicted state Rep. Derrick Smith refused Thursday to take questions from a panel weighing his political future but again proclaimed his innocence of a bribery charge as his lawyer tried poking holes in the federal criminal case.

“I stand here today as an innocent man, a man accused but not convicted of a crime by the federal government,” the appointed West Side lawmaker told the House Special Investigating Committee. “Despite my desire to clear my name and answer all of the questions people have, I will follow the advice of my attorney” and not respond to questions.

Smith’s appearance represented a dramatic new development in his efforts to hold onto his Illinois House seat. But after more than an hour-long hearing, neither he nor his lawyer put to rest the key allegations against him that arose from an undercover FBI sting.

For the bulk of Thursday’s hearing, Smith lawyer Victor Henderson fended off questions from the committee’s counsel, David Ellis, the top lawyer for House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago).

Asked by Ellis if his client will plead guilty to the bribery charge at any point, Henderson replied, “Absolutely not.”

Ellis later asked Henderson whether Smith wrote the letter of support to a daycare operator that’s at the heart of the bribery case.

“With all due respect, that’s a question we’re not in a position to answer right now,” Henderson said.

Ellis asked why that was the case, and Henderson answered: “You’re starting to delve into his defense. Clearly, this is a public proceeding, and, quite candidly, we’re not interested in letting the prosecutors in Chicago know the nuances of our defense.”

Last week, Smith pleaded not guilty in federal court to charges he allegedly took a $7,000 cash bribe in exchange for the letter of support on behalf of the purported operator of a daycare center seeking a $50,000 state grant.

The criminal complaint from March 13 states that Smith and a government informant met in a car on March 10, where Smith was given the cash. Their conversation was allegedly caught on tape.

At Thursday’s hearing, Henderson repeatedly focused on an April 10 letter from U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to a federal magistrate judge, outlining “two inaccurate statements” in an affidavit filed in the case from an FBI agent that was the basis for the criminal complaint.

Fitzgerald corrected the original assertion from FBI Special Agent Bryan Butler that the informant only had been arrested for domestic assault, with no conviction. Instead, Fitzgerald’s letter revealed, the informant had a 2004 drug conviction and a 1978 burglary conviction, both resulting in probation — and “approximately 20 prior arrests.”

The other inaccuracy Fitzgerald cited involved the government’s representation that the informant had been paid approximately $1,200 by the FBI during the past three or four years for “his/her assistance in other investigations.” Actually, the informant was paid $2,100 by the FBI during that period, Fitzgerald said.

“This development raises several issues, including whether the government met its burden of honesty and integrity with the court, the representative and the public by not sharing this information until after it indicted Mr. Smith,” Henderson wrote in a letter to the House committee.

Beyond asking Henderson about the alleged letter Smith wrote for the daycare center, Ellis also read from the criminal indictment against Smith and asked whether its narrative about him accepting the $7,000 cash bribe from the informant was something the House committee should believe.

“These allegations were provided by an agent who’s already acknowledged making misstatements to a sitting federal judge, and they need to be read in that context,” Henderson responded.

In urging the panel to be mindful of Smith’s innocence and possible overreach by federal prosecutors, Henderson pointed several times to the case of former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who was convicted of federal corruption charges that later were tossed out amid charges of prosecutorial misconduct.

“Sen. Stevens was under siege, and no one wanted to believe he was an innocent man,” Henderson told the panel.

“The government lawyers put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us do,” he said afterwards. “They’re susceptible to being dishonest. They’re susceptible to making mistakes. They’re susceptible sometimes to not doing the right thing.”

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), chairwoman of the House Special Investigating Committee, told reporters after the hearing concluded she did not know when her committee, which is akin to a criminal grand jury, might recommend whether to recommend charges against Smith. But she did emphasize Smith’s silence on key questions about his criminal case could be used against him.

“His unwillingness to explain himself or to respond to the allegations in the complaint, to accept them or deny them, is something we can take into account in this political proceeding,” she said.

If Nekritz’ six-member, bi-partisan panel recommends its own charges against Smith, a bi-partisan, 12-member Select Committee on Discipline would be formed to rule on the validity of those charges and recommend specific sanctions, which could be as severe as expulsion from the House. That rarely used penalty would require support from 79 of the House’s 118 members.

Last week, after his not guilty plea, Smith read a prepared statement addressing the criminal complaint against him, saying: “I intend to fight these charges. I look forward to having the opportunity to clear my name.” He said he was troubled by “the shenanigans being played by the FBI to lean on people around me.” “I will not cower,” Smith vowed. “I intend to stand tall with my wife, family, friends, House colleagues and lawyers.”

He noted that he was reelected even after the charges were announced.

“The people in my district elected me on March the 20, 2012 even after the government charged me with wrongdoing and that’s because they believed in me and what I will do to represent them in Springfield,” he continued. “God gives us all a cross to bear and this lawsuit is mine.”

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