By Jamey Dunn
An Illinois House committee has decided that there is enough evidence for the full House to consider punishing indicted Rep. Derrick Smith.
“We were unanimous that his conduct was a breach of his obligation as a public official and felt it appropriate to send this to the next step,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who was chair of an investigative committee tasked with determining if there was enough evidence to warrant punishment for Smith.
Smith, a Chicago Democrat, faces one charge of bribery for allegedly accepting $7,000 from a day care center that he believed was seeking a state construction grant. In reality, the center was not seeking a grant, and Smith was the subject of a federal sting. A criminal complaint filed against him includes transcripts from a wire worn by an informant. One such transcript is of Smith and the informant counting out the alleged bribe money.
Smith appeared before the House investigative committee in May and read a statement, but he refused to go under oath or answer questions. His attorney, Victor Henderson, took questions from the committee but would not speak directly to the allegations against Smith. Henderson could not be reached for comment today.
Elmhurst Republican Rep. Dennis Reboletti, who also served on the investigative committee, said that the committee was allowed to take Smith's unwillingness to answer their questions into account. “We’re entitled to infer something from his silence,” Reboletti said today at a Chicago news conference.
Now the issue will go before a panel of 12 House members. Rep. Jim Durkin, a Republican from Western Springs, and Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang have been tapped to present the case against Smith. Henderson and Smith will have the option of being present and voicing any objections to the process. The panel will make a recommendation to the full House. They can choose to exonerate, censor, reprimand or expel Smith. Their ruling would then have to be approved by a two-thirds vote in the House. Under House rules, the panel must hold its first meeting within 30 days from today.
Reboletti, a former prosecutor, noted that the burden of evidence for the House to punish one of its members is not as strict as in a criminal trial. “This is not a trial to take away somebody’s liberty. We’re not going to put Rep. Smith in custody. We’re looking at the integrity and the ethics of the House, and so it’s a civil measure based on our House rules.”
Federal prosecutors made it clear to the investigative committee that they would not share any evidence and also asked the committee not to do any digging on its own because it might interfere with the federal case against Smith. “I think we felt that we had what we were going to get, and we made a decision on the basis of what we had,” said Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat.