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Criminal charges don’t slow ceremonies for newly sworn-in state legislators

Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago). FILE PHOTO. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago). FILE PHOTO. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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Updated: February 11, 2013 7:40AM

SPRINGFIELD — Engulfed by pomp and pension hangover, a new crop of 177 Illinois lawmakers was sworn into office Wednesday with part of this legislative class confronted with the less-than-honorable prospect of one day moving from the Statehouse to the Big House.

At no time in recent political memory have so many sitting Illinois lawmakers been under criminal indictment at the same time — let alone on an inauguration day that’s usually marked by a refreshing respite in political feuding, parties and family portraits on the floors of the House and Senate.

But as the new 98th General Assembly took its oath, three state legislators face criminal charges in a reminder of how a state with two former governors in federal prison hasn’t shaken its robust reputation for political corruption.

Among the group is state Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago), whose federal bribery charge for allegedly accepting $7,000 from an undercover FBI informant led House colleagues to drive him from office last August.

Yet, Smith easily won election in November and thus a ticket back to Springfield, where the same state Constitution he swore Wednesday to uphold protects him from being kicked out of office again for the same offense.

After Wednesday’s proceedings, Smith answered a few questions in the same evasive manner as he slowly walked eyes down and shoulders slumped to his parked car outside the university building where the House inauguration took place.

How does it feel to be back in Springfield? Smith was asked.

“It feels wonderful,” he answered.

Any sense of redemption in returning after his expulsion?

“Uh, [it] just gives me an opportunity to continue on doing what I set out to do, working with my constituents,” he said.

The answer was the same over and over when asked if he felt any sort of black cloud, if three legislators under indictment at the same time hurts the state’s image, if he’d been set up by the feds or if he thought he could regain the trust of his House colleagues: “No comment.”

Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago), who faces federal bank fraud charges, didn’t talk about his problems Wednesday. Nor did state Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago), who appeared tense on the Senate floor in turning away inquiries from reporters in the Senate press box.

Trotter’s felony charge for allegedly attempting to pass through a security checkpoint at O’Hare Airport with a gun in a duffle bag didn’t wind up penalizing him within the halls of the state Capitol, where the South Side lawmaker has built a reputation over more than two decades as a nattily-dressed and respected budget expert.

Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) kept Trotter in his leadership team, anointing him an assistant majority leader from the more obscure post of majority caucus chairman.

Cullerton’s spokeswoman insisted the move was not a promotion.

“It’s a position parallel to the one he had before,” she said of Trotter. “He has 22 years of distinguished service in the Legislature.”

Wednesday’s swearing-in ceremonies came after a lame-duck cast of Illinois lawmakers whiffed in its efforts to solve the state’s $95 billion pension crisis by Wednesday, when the two-year tenure of the 97th General Assembly ended.

Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) identified the unsolved pension impasse as a top legislative priority, with Cullerton introducing legislation that melded competing House and Senate versions into one bill.

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