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Indicted candidate has some explaining to do

Updated: November 27, 2012 11:14AM

Former state Rep. Derrick Smith, running for election despite being under indictment and already expelled from the Illinois House for allegedly taking a $7,000 bribe, popped up briefly Thursday on talk radio where the first caller got right to the heart of the matter.

“I wanted to know, did you take the money, Derrick Smith?” said a guy identifying himself as Eddie who called into host Cliff Kelley’s afternoon show. “And if none of this is true, why are these accusations being made?”

Smith, who has been keeping a very low profile on the campaign trail, wasn’t about to have that discussion.

“That’s a legal issue, and I can’t answer that question, sir,” said Smith before Kelley moved quickly to deflect any additional inquiry along those lines.

That’s a shame, because I certainly think voters deserve some answers when they are being asked to return Smith to Springfield—and in the process further cement Illinois’ reputation as a national laughingstock of crooked politics.

Although polls suggest Smith’s election against third-party candidate Lance Tyson in the 10th House District is practically assured, I continue to believe voters will do the right thing if better informed.

Toward that end, let’s remind everyone of some of the other known information and pertinent questions.

On the day he was arrested in March and charged with accepting that $7,000 cash bribe, Smith was taken from his home to the FBI office and given his Miranda rights.

Smith waived those rights — including to have an attorney present — and agreed to speak with FBI agents on the spot, court documents show.

Smith then went on to make what federal prosecutors now describe as “inculpatory statements”— meaning self-incriminating.

Exactly what Smith told the FBI has yet to be disclosed, although his lawyers have tried to block prosecutors from using the information at his trial.

You don’t suppose Smith admitted taking the money while offering some lame explanation?

If not, then what exactly was Smith doing while the government informant was counting out the bills in front of him, both of their voices secretly recorded as Smith prodded him to take his $2,000 cut?

Why did Smith say: “You don’t want me to give you yours now?” when the informant prepared to leave without his agreed-upon “two.”

And even before then, why was Smith so insistent in the days leading up to the money exchange that he be paid with cash instead of a cashier’s check as his reward for writing a letter to help a day care center get a $50,000 state grant?

“Yeah, I don’t want no trace of it,” Smith was recorded saying. How does he explain that?

Smith is a favorite to win mainly because most voters in his district automatically choose the Democratic candidate and are not easily broken of the habit — even if aware of the charges against him, which many are not.

Forty percent of the 10th District’s voters reside in the 27th and 28th wards on the West Side, but it also includes portions of the 1st, 2nd, 24th, 26th, 32nd , 37th and 43rd wards. The district is 50 percent African-American and 38 percent white.

African-American voters in particular are sensitive to an argument Smith advanced earlier on the radio show that he should not be punished before he has had a chance to defend himself in court.

“I am innocent until proven guilty,” Smith said.

In terms of legal punishment, I agree: innocent until proven guilty.

That’s no excuse for voters to turn a blind eye to the accusations against him, spelled out in very convincing specificity by prosecutors in court documents.

The only defense Smith has mustered so far is that federal agents did not fully disclose to a judge the criminal background of the unnamed informant involved in secretly recording him.

As one of those who did some hand-wringing about whether it was proper for legislators to oust Smith prior to conviction, I can appreciate the argument Smith should have been allowed to finish his term.

But that doesn’t justify electing him again, especially when he has a legitimate opponent in Tyson, a lawyer running under the banner of the 10th District Unity Party.

Democratic officials led by Secretary of State Jesse White who were responsible for Smith’s original selection have moved forcefully in recent weeks to shore up Tyson’s campaign to make up for the debacle.

Tyson is telling voters that no matter how they feel about Smith’s legal woes they need to face the practical reality he can’t do anything for the district if elected.

“A vote for my opponent would be a wasted vote,” Tyson said.

I’d call it a waste, a mistake and an embarrassment.

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