By Jamey Dunn
The Illinois House expelled Derrick Smith today, but the embattled former representative could return to the ranks of the body if voters choose to vote him in this November.
The vote to expel Smith, who allegedly took a bribe in exchange for an official act, came as no surprise. The House disciplinary committee that recommended expulsion voted unanimously that Smith was at fault, and all but one member recommended expelling him. Smith was not present at the disciplinary hearing or during today’s vote. One hundred members voted in favor of kicking Smith out, while six voted against it. Three lawmakers voted “present.” The vote took effect immediately, and Smith’s name was removed from the House roll. It is the first time House members have expelled one of their own since 1905.
Smith was arrested in March and is accused of taking a $7,000 bribe in exchange for writing a letter of recommendation for a daycare center he believed was seeking a state grant. Smith was the subject of a federal sting, and the daycare was not actually seeking the grant.
“Using one’s office for personal gain not for the public good is an affront to the core reputation of every legislator. To act in this way is to me a stunning violation of the oath of office each of us has promised to uphold. I can think of no greater breach of the public trust,” said Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, who served on the committee that recommended expelling Smith.
Several House members said that if Smith had gone under oath and denied that he had taken a bribe, today’s vote likely would have not occurred. Since the disciplinary committee had little evidence to work with other than the criminal complaint against Smith, Currie said it would have been difficult to refute the claims Smith could have made.
Elmhurst Republican Rep. Dennis Reboletti said that House members should take the information in the criminal complaint at “face value” because Smith never denied any of the allegations against him. “When you get down to the heart of the matter, Rep. Smith chose not to testify in front of us. He chose not to deny that those conversations [regarding the alleged bribe] in that affidavit ... ever took place. He had three opportunities in front of our special investigative committee to do so,” said Reboletti, who served on a preliminary committee that decided whether there was enough evidence to proceed with disciplinary action against Smith. Smith was allowed to plead the Fifth Amendment, which protects against self-incrimination, and choose not to testify in front of any of the House members. However, unlike in criminal court, House members were able to take his choice not to testify into consideration when decided whether to expel him from the chamber.
Those opposed to booting Smith did not defend his alleged actions, but they urged the lawmakers to wait until there was more evidence. They said that Smith had likely opted not to testify under oath because his lawyer advised him not to.
Rep. Mary Flowers, a Chicago Democrat, called the proceedings “a dog and pony show.” She said that expelling somebody over unproven allegations sets a dangerous precedent. Flowers also noted that today’s vote means that lawmakers may have few options to get rid of Smith if he is elected to the House in November.
If Smith wins his bid in the general election, the House cannot expel him again over the same offense. He won his primary election race in the 10th House District with 77 percent of the vote.
“He’s still on the ballot. And it is ‘we the people’, the people of his district that will have the say. They will be the ones to say if Mr. Smith will come back to this House or not,” she said. “There’s nothing that we will do here today that will stop him from coming back. And then what?”
Rep. Jim Durkin, who helped argue the case against Smith in front of the disciplinary committee, said that since Smith is the subject of an ongoing investigation, there is a possibility that he might face other criminal charges in the future. Durkin, a Republican from Western Springs, said if that were to happen, Smith could be expelled over another charge.
“My hunch is that this case is not completely done,” he said. “If that is not the case [and he wins the election,] then Rep. Smith will be sworn in and seated next January because we can’t remove him for the charges for which we removed him today.
However, Durkin said that the charge against Smith is so serious that it was necessary to take action and not wait until after the election.
Smith told reporters at a Chicago news conference that he was “sad” about today's vote. But he said there is a silver lining. "I am happy because through this ordeal, I have been able to learn who my friends are," Smith said. He said he plans to remain on the ballot. Many Democrats, including Smith’s former political ally Secretary of State Jesse White, have thrown support behind his opponent, third-party candidate Lance Tyson.