Illinois House ousts Derrick Smith, who vows to regain his seat
BY DAVE MCKINNEY AND KARA SPAK Staff Reporters August 17, 2012 1:23PM
State Representative Derrick Smith was ousted from Illinois House and responds with his Attorney Victor P. Henderson at Henderson Adam, LLC, 330 S. Wells Street, Chicago. Friday, August 17, 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times
Updated: September 19, 2012 6:06AM
SPRINGFIELD — State Rep. Derrick Smith still has to face a jury for allegedly accepting a bribe, but his colleagues decided his immediate political future Friday, ousting him after one House member warned “the integrity of this body is at stake.”
By a 100-6 vote, the Illinois House moved to kick the West Side Democrat out, the first time a sitting House member has been thrown out of office in more than a century.
Smith’s House seat sat empty during Friday’s historic proceeding because he was an unexcused, no-show in Springfield.
Instead of pleading his case in the Capitol, he held a news conference in Chicago, sounding both defiant and emotional.
Some 40 minutes after the House vote, Smith said his former peers rushed to judgment and that he would seek to regain the seat in November’s election.
“My former colleagues did not know the truth, and I look forward to having my day in court,” he said, his voice at times breaking.
Smith called the day both “sad and happy” — sad because he was the first House member thrown out in more than 100 years but happy because his legal ordeal allowed him to learn who his friends are.
“And I have many of them,” he said. “So many people in the 10th District have encouraged me to fight the good fight.”
While Smith’s statement was brief, his attorney Vic Henderson said voters should expect a vigorous campaign from him in November.
“He’s going after the seat hard,” Henderson said.
But in Springfield, legislators weren’t talking about friendship.
“The case against Rep. Smith is about something no member of this House can consider harmless. Taking official action not because it’s right for the public but because someone has offered you a bribe to do so, that is a very contrary to our mission as state legislators,” said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), chairwoman of the House Select Committee on Discipline, which urged Smith’s expulsion.
“Using one’s office for personal gain, not for the public good, is an affront to the core responsibilities of every legislator. To act in this way, is to me, a stunning violation of the oath of office each of us has promised to uphold. I can think of no greater breach of the public trust,” she said.
The only no votes were Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago), Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), Rep. Rita Mayfield (D-Chicago), Rep. Art Turner (D-Chicago), Rep. Anthony DeLuca (D-Crete) and Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood.)
One by one, with the normally bustling House chamber brought to silence, Smith’s former colleagues stood to blast him for allegedly accepting a $7,000 cash bribe from an undercover FBI informant last spring to write a letter of support for a purported daycare operator seeking a $50,000 state grant.
A criminal complaint and affidavit outlined nearly 150 recorded phone conversations in which Smith allegedly discussed arranging the bribe, and the lawmaker never denied the charges under oath in the House.
“At one point, Rep. Smith had money counted out to him. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, five thousand, six thousand, seven thousand dollars,” said Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst), the ranking Republican on the first House panel to consider sanctions against Smith. “Never denied.”
“If you look at Rep. Smith’s seat,” said Reboletti, gesturing to his empty, high-backed House chair near the front of the chamber, “he isn’t here. Again, he’d have an opportunity to tell you I never had these conversations.
“There might be legal defenses for Rep. Smith, but that’s not something we should concern ourselves with,” Reboletti continued. “People have asked me, what if it’s entrapment? No matter what, he had these conversations. His oath of office determined he had to do a lot more than enrich himself at the expense of Illinois taxpayers.”
Rep. Chuck Jefferson (D-Rockford) was the first of three African-American colleagues of Smith’s to stand in support of him during Friday’s hour-plus floor debate, arguing that the House is wrong to pre-empt the outcome of Smith’s federal trial and deny him due-process rights.
“What happens if, in fact, we go through with this and later on he’s found innocent of all charges? Then what happens?” said Jefferson, who indicated he would vote “present” on Currie’s resolution.
“Well,” Currie replied, “then he’s still been expelled from this assembly. I’d urge if he did not do it … if that wasn’t his voice, he should have come before us and told us that. I do not understand how we can tell our constituents he didn’t do it when he wouldn’t tell us that himself.”
As Smith’s seat sat empty in Springfield, in Chicago Smith spoke at a podium next to two empty chairs which attorneys Henderson and Sam Adam, Jr. said represented “the con man” and “the FBI agent” they thought House members should hear from before kicking Smith out.
“Time and again we asked them to slow the process down,” Henderson said. “The deal was set, the die was cast from day one. This was a political process, not due process.”
The lawyers said they told Smith not to talk publicly about the tape and urged him not to defend himself in Springfield during what Henderson called “a sham proceeding.”
While not outright denying Smith is on the tapes, Adam Jr. urged Smith’s former colleagues and constituents to keep an open mind about the tapes.
“At the end of the day there is an explanation for everything that you will and most importantly what you don’t on the tapes,” he said.
Adam Jr. also claimed Friday’s vote was a way to get Republican pressure, specifically from House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego), off House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) while giving Democrats the opportunity to slate a candidate who would vote with them.
“They wanted his seat and they want some schmuck to come in and give him [Smith’s] seat,” Adam Jr. said.
In Springfield, Jefferson was among three members who cast symbolic “present” votes on his expulsion resolution, rather than voting to oust him or do the politically untenable in an election year and vote to keep him in office.
Other “present” votes included Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago) and Rep. Andre Thapedi (D-Chicago).
Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), another African-American lawmaker opposing Smith’s expulsion, answered critics who said his refusal to deny before the House that he committed bribery shouldn’t be used against him.
“He spoke in federal court. We can infer from what he said in federal court that he’s not guilty,” Flowers said.
“Because he’s still on the ballot, and it is we the people, the people of his district that’ll have the last say, they’ll be the ones to say if Mr. Smith will come back to this House or not. So regardless of what we may say or do about his behavior, what we may think about him, what we inferred, there’s nothing we’ll do today that’ll stop him from coming back. Then what?” she said, her voice rising.
Davis voted against Smith’s expulsion resolution, saying “our reputation stands for itself” and there is no reason to think Smith’s alleged wrongdoing reflects poorly on the House.
“The majority of us are good, clean, honest-reputation people. To do this to prove to someone that we don’t condone it is the wrong way to go,” she said.
The move to drive Smith from office required votes from 79 of the House’s 118 members.
But his expulsion, which takes effect immediately, does not affect future elections, so Smith could return in January should he win election in November. He faces third-party candidate Lance Tyson, a bond lawyer who has lined up backing from key Democrats in Smith’s district.
The last time a House member was expelled was in 1905, when the chamber voted 121-13 to oust Rep. Frank D. Comerford (D-Chicago) for actions that “besmirched the good name and reputation of this General Assembly.”
Comerford angered colleagues with a speech he delivered to students and faculty of the Illinois College of Law in Chicago in January 1905 in which he claimed there was wholesale corruption in both chambers of the Legislature.
But Comerford’s expulsion was short-lived. He was re-elected a few months later to fill the vacancy caused by his ouster.
But at the end of the day Friday, those wanting Smith gone from the House wanted, essentially, to make clear that Comerford’s assessment of the character of those in the House doesn’t apply today.
“Because of headlines in newspapers, most people in Illinois and most people in this country think that we are all like those people who end up in the headlines with bad headlines, and we’re not. The best way to show the people of Illinois, the best way to show the people of this country, that people in public life will not put up with other people in public life who cross the line and who don’t seem to care is to make a statement today,” said Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie). “It’s not just a statement about Rep. Smith. It’s a statement about us.”