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House panel urges possible sanctions against Rep. Smith

State Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago)  |  SETH PERLMAN~AP

State Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago) | SETH PERLMAN~AP

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Updated: July 8, 2012 6:48PM

SPRINGFIELD — An Illinois House panel unanimously urged Wednesday that a committee be formed to consider sanctions against state Rep. Derrick Smith, who’s charged with taking a bribe.

That recommendation from the six-member, bipartisan House Special Investigating Committee is another step toward the West Side lawmaker’s possible expulsion from the Illinois Legislature.

“Accepting a cash bribe in exchange for an official act, or even plotting or attempting to do so, constitutes a breach of Representative Smith’s obligation as a public official to faithfully discharge his duties in the best interest of the people of the state of Illinois and warrants disciplinary action by the House of Representatives,” the committee said in a seven-page report.

Smith was charged by federal prosecutors in March with bribery, accused of taking a $7,000 bribe in exchange for a letter of support from him on behalf of the purported operator of a day-care center seeking a $50,000 state grant.

According to the March 13 criminal complaint that prosecutors filed, Smith and a government informant met March 10 in a car and the West Side Democrat was given the cash. Authorities say the conversation was caught on tape.

“We were unanimous that his conduct was a breach of his obligations as a public official,” said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), chairwoman of the special investigating committee. “None of us take joy in reaching this conclusion . . . Personally it saddens me that we’re here today not only personally but on behalf of the institution, to have to go through this process with one of our members.”

Nekritz noted that Smith has declined to offer his side of things.

“In this process, we are permitted to infer something from his silence,” she said.

Said state Representative Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst), another member of the committee: “He did not deny the allegations when given an opportunity.”

Reboletti added: “You don’t relish the opportunity to pass judgment on or investigate someone you serve with.”

Rep. Will Davis (D-Chicago), also on the committee, called the decision to pursue a case against Smith “probably one of the most difficult things I have had to do in the General Assembly.”

The move to sanction Smith in the Legislature was launched March 27, when state Rep. Jim Sacia (R-Pecatonica) formally asked that a single legislative charge be leveled against Smith for a “level of misconduct and misuse” of his office and a “gross breach of the public trust.”

Now, a bipartisan, 12-member Select Committee on Discipline will be formed to rule on the validity of the charge against him and recommend specific sanctions to the full House.

The House Special investigating Committee appointed state Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) and Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) to be in charge of presenting the case against Smith to the Select Committee on Discipline. Lang and Durkin will decide on the rules for the trial, at which 12 House members — six Republicans and six Democrats — will serve as jurors. Lang and Durkin will act as prosecutors in the civil procedure, which could result in exoneration or a recommendation to the full House for censure, reprimand or expulsion from the Legislature.

A two-thirds vote of the full House — 79 of its 118 members — would be needed to issue a censure or reprimand or boot Smith out of the Legislature. Expulsion from the House is a rarely issued sanction.

If his colleagues in the House do ultimately decide to oust Smith, the unusual possibility remains that Smith could be expelled and still end up getting re-elected this fall, after winning the Democratic primary in a landslide. If that were to happen, the House would be faced with the decision of whether to go through the same process all over again.

As farfetched as that seems, it’s exactly what happened in a similar case in 1905.

That’s one of just three prior similar proceedings in the Illinois House and the only one that resulted in the expulsion of a House member.

The last time the House held such proceedings involving one of its own members was in 1976.

“We are in uncharted territory,” Reboletti said. “We haven’t done this in 30 years.”

After Smith won the primary, other West Side Democrats anointed Lance Tyson, a onetime top aide to former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, as their choice to mount a challenge to Smith in the November ballot as a third-party candidate.

The House panel that will decide whether to recommend sanctions against Smith is to begin meeting within 30 days.

Smith has rejected calls that he resign from the House. If he did so, the legislative proceedings against him would end.

Smith lawyer Victor Henderson said his client would have preferred that the House Special Investigating Committee wait to issue its recommendation until after the federal judge who’s presiding over the criminal case against Smith rules on their request to learn the informant’s identity and background and other information that prosecutors so far have withheld.

“It would have been the logical thing to have done,” Henderson said.

Smith’s lawyer has tried poking holes in the integrity of the criminal case by focusing on an April 10 letter from U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald acknowledging to a federal magistrate judge there were “two inaccurate statements” in an affidavit filed by an FBI agent that was the basis for the criminal case.

Fitzgerald corrected the original assertion from FBI Special Agent Bryan Butler that the informant’s criminal record was limited to an arrest for domestic assault, with no conviction. Fitzgerald’s letter revealed the informant also 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 a representation that the informant had been paid approximately $1,200 by the FBI in 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.

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