Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Rep. Smith a no-show for first investigative committee hearing

By Jamey Dunn

An Illinois House committee tasked with investigating a lawmaker who was arrested on bribery charges kicked off proceedings today.

The House Special Investigative Committee will consider the charge that Smith misused his office by accepting a bribe for services rendered from his position as a legislator. Investigators contend that he accepted a $7,000 bribe in exchange for writing a letter on his legislative letterhead recommending a daycare center for a construction grant. Smith was the subject of a federal sting. The daycare center was not actually seeking a grant, but prosecutors say Smith believed he was accepting a bribe for the letter.

Smith did not show up for the hearing today. He has not been present for legislative session in Springfield since he was arrested March 13. He has also not spoken to the press or responded to requests for comment from Illinois Issues or other media outlets.

Smith won his primary election race in the 10th House District with 77 percent of the vote. However, it is likely that Democratic leaders hope to pressure him to leave the ticket so they can choose a replacement candidate.

David Ellis, counsel for the investigative committee, said that he called Smith last Wednesday when the committee was created. He said he emailed Smith to let him know when and where the hearing would take place. Ellis said Smith told him he was aware of the hearing.

“Rep. Smith has not been convicted of a crime. He has been arrested on the basis of a sworn criminal complaint. He is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt following a full criminal trial,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, chair of the investigative committee. However, she added, “There are very serious allegations to be investigated by this committee.” Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, noted that the committee is not tasked with disciplining Smith. Instead, members must decide whether disciplinary actions are warranted. She said that there has not been a similar ethics charge in the chamber in recent history. “In anyone’s memory, there’s been no proceeding like this in the House, especially with the concurrent criminal investigation and charge out there.” But the proceedings are already drawing some comparisons to the impeachment and removal from office of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. 

Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, said the committee is a “hybrid” between a grand jury, which decides whether there is enough evidence to move forward with a case, and a preliminary hearing. Reboletti, a former state’s attorney, said that if the committee decides there is no reason to move forward with a disciplinary tribunal, Smith would be exonerated of the alleged breach of ethics. “Like a preliminary hearing,” Reboletti said, “Rep. Smith is allowed to attend and testify on his behalf, be represented by council and … cross examine any witnesses that appear before this committee.” Nekritz said Smith would have to testify under oath if he appears before the committee. The committee’s vote will have no effect on the criminal case against Smith.

Committee members voted unanimously to consult with U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to ensure that their efforts would not interfere with the federal investigation. Nekritz said they would also ask if  federal investigators would provide any evidence or witnesses to the committee. But Nekritz said such a move is unlikely. “We’re anticipating, frankly, that we have access to nothing, but we’ll see what they say.”

Nekrtiz said the committee would meet again when it receives a response from Fitzgerald. She estimated that the next meeting would be held on the week of April 8 and would likely take place in Chicago.

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