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Indicted state Rep. Smith’s use of campaign cash to pay defense lawyers called “reasonable”

Illinois State Rep-elect Derrick Smith attorneys Victor HendersSam Adam Jr. make post-electiremarks discuss his future plans Springfield Thursday November 8

Illinois State Rep-elect Derrick Smith and attorneys Victor Henderson and Sam Adam Jr. make post-election remarks and discuss his future plans in Springfield on Thursday, November 8, 2012. I Stacie Scott~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 4, 2013 6:44AM

SPRINGFIELD — Set for trial in less than nine months, indicted state Rep. Derrick Smith dipped into his campaign fund to pay at least $37,500 to the criminal defense lawyers representing him in his federal bribery case, newly filed state campaign records show.

Smith made that expenditure to the Henderson Adam law firm on March 29, 2012, just days after being arrested for allegedly accepting a $7,000 cash bribe from an undercover FBI informant in exchange for offering to help a fictitious daycare center operator in his district obtain a $50,000 state grant.

But the West Side Democrat, who has denied wrongdoing, didn’t wind up actually making that expenditure public in a filing to the State Board of Elections until Jan. 21, nearly 10 months after the fact, records show.

In that same late-January amendment to the disclosure report covering activity for the first three months of 2012, Smith also divulged spending $1,500 to a law firm in the 6800 block of Touhy Avenue in Niles that he did not name.

The new disclosures were among a recent flurry of amendments Smith submitted to state election authorities. In all, since the start of the year, Smith filed 13 different amendments for reports he originally submitted last year that apparently were incomplete or inaccurate.

“Rep. Smith has complied with both the letter and spirit of the law as it relates to the use of his campaign fund,” Smith’s lawyer, Victor Henderson, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“I think any time someone self-reports an amendment, those are people to me who are making sure their house is in order, which is what you want,” he said.

Smith, whose bribery trial is set to begin Oct. 21, was inaugurated on Jan. 9 after becoming the first sitting House member to be expelled by the chamber in more than a century. He regained his seat after overwhelmingly winning election in November. The state Constitution bars the House or Senate from expelling a member more than once for the same offense.

State election law is silent on using campaign funds to pay criminal defense lawyers. That silence enabled former Gov. George Ryan and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to siphon off hundreds of thousands of dollars collectively from their political funds to use in their fights against federal corruption charges.

The law doesn’t permit officials to use campaign funds to purchase homes, cars, clothing or college tuition, among other things. But they are given broad latitude to spend political money on anything that would “defray the customary and reasonable expenses of an officeholder in connection with the performance of governmental and public service functions.”

That means campaign expenditures for mounting a legal defense against bribery allegations probably are permissible under existing law, said Rupert Borgsmiller, executive director of the State Board of Elections.

Borgsmiller said the use of campaign funds for a legal defense has never been challenged in a complaint before the state election board.

One lawmaker who helped lead the ouster of Smith last August said his use of campaign money for his bribery defense represents anything but a “reasonable and customary” expense tied to being a legislator.

“People use campaign money for a lot of things. I understand that. But I think for the sole purpose of defending self in a criminal court case, from Rod Blagojevich to now Derrick Smith, it does raise the question of whether this is a good way of going about business,” said Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs), who was among two lawmakers who acted as prosecutors in Smith’s disciplinary case last summer before the House.

“I think with most people, first thing when they hear about campaign funds being used for a personal defense, they get a laugh or just shake their heads and say how does that happen? It’s because the law says it can,” Durkin said.

“We need to have an earnest discussion about this type of practice and whether we should allow it to be continued,” Durkin said. “It seems like it’s a stretch to use these funds for this purpose.”

In response, Henderson insisted Smith did not run afoul of state campaign-finance laws in paying for his criminal defense.

“Rep. Durkin is really raising an issue that is for him and his colleagues. They are the ones who passed the law that Rep. Smith in this case has complied with,” Henderson said.

Without an infusion of contributions, the likelihood of Smith continuing to use his campaign fund in any meaningful way to pay for his legal tab appears remote. He ended 2012 reporting a paltry $298 in the bank.

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