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Panel asks feds for info on arrested Illinois lawmaker

Caption
(AP)
State Rep. Jim Sacia, R-Freeport, listens to lawmakers during a legislative committee hearing investigating whether a House member, Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago, should be disciplined over a bribery charge Tuesday at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.

SPRINGFIELD (AP) – Illinois lawmakers considering the expulsion of Rep. Derrick Smith said Tuesday they will move quickly to decide the case regardless of whether they get assistance from federal prosecutors who charged the Chicago Democrat with bribery.

The Special House Investigating Committee voted 6-0 to ask U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s office for details about its allegation that Smith accepted a $7,000 bribe in exchange for his support of a day care center’s state grant application.

Smith did not attend the committee’s brief hearing, which consisted of the vote, a statement of suggested charges by the lawmaker seeking the House review and opening statements from the panel’s chairwoman and Republican spokesman.

“These are very serious allegations for us to investigate, but we will do so as thoroughly as possible despite the fact that there’s an ongoing criminal investigation which may limit our ability to do so,” said the chairwoman, Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat.

The committee adjourned for at least two weeks to await an answer from Fitzgerald, whose prosecutors claim Smith accepted a cash bribe from a campaign worker who was an undercover FBI informant. Smith thought he was taking the money for an official letter supporting a $50,000 grant request from a day care center that turned out to be fictitious and part of a sting, according to a criminal complaint.

Secretary of State Jesse White, a Chicago ward committeeman who backed Smith for the House post to fill a vacancy last spring, said Tuesday he has told Smith’s acquaintances he wants Smith out, in addition to publicly asking for his resignation last week. But White has not talked directly to Smith, whom he said he’s known since the legislator was a child.

“I don’t know if I want to talk to the gentleman. I would not be kind,” White told The Associated Press. “He disappointed me and he disappointed the people. Unacceptable.”

A spokesman for Fitzgerald would not comment on the committee’s anticipated request for a peek at prosecutors’ case.

“If we have access to nothing, we’re just going to be making that decision on the basis of the criminal complaint, and we’ve all read it, we know what it says,” Nekritz said after the hearing.

In that case, committee members would have to decide whether the allegations against Smith, formally presented to the committee in a petition by Rep. Jim Sacia, R-Pecatonica, “is a breach of trust, is a cause and impediment to Rep. Smith discharging his duties,” said Rep. Dennis Reboletti of Elmhurst, the panel’s Republican spokesman.

“The fact of the matter is, we have a decorum here and we have to be able to show the people of our districts that we are doing our official jobs the best way we can,” Reboletti said.

If the committee determines discipline is warranted, the matter goes to a second group of 12 representatives that would conduct a hearing to decide on penalties including reprimand, censure or expulsion. The full House would have to approve punishment.

Even though the House took the unprecedented step of impeaching former Gov. Rod Blagojevich just three years ago, lawmakers have little history to follow. The Legislative Research Unit turned up just three instances in the past 107 years in which committees considered discipline against House members – in 1905, 1935 and 1976 – resulting in an expulsion, dropped charges after an apology, and exoneration.

Even if he’s thrown out, the House cannot bar Smith from serving again and cannot remove him from the ballot, Nekritz said. Conceivably, an expelled Smith – provided he is not serving a criminal sentence – could be re-elected to the House, as happened in the 1905 case.

Reboletti and Nekritz said the committee could consider any evidence or circumstances it agrees on, including whether the criminal allegation is a violation of public trust or conduct which is sufficient to consider discipline, or whether Smith’s defense of his case consumes too much time to allow for effective representation.

“Rep. Smith has not been in session since the allegations, there are constituents that are going to be calling his office, may need other support,” Reboletti said. “There are going to be things outside the four corners of the petition that we’ll be able to take into evidence and consider.”

Neither lawmaker wants the situation to drag on very long, even if the federal government can help, particularly because of Smith’s absence from House sessions.

“It makes me very sad to be in this role because there’s a lot at stake here, both for the institution, for the public, and for Rep. Smith, and weighing and balancing all that is going to be very challenging,” Nekritz said.

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