Thursday, May 10, 2012

Smith shows up but says little

By Jamey Dunn

Rep. Derrick Smith and his lawyer appeared before a House investigative committee today, but the two did little to shed light on the allegations of bribery against Smith.

Smith faces one charge of bribery from allegedly accepting $7,000 from a day care center, which 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. Smith read a prepared statement to the committee, which is tasked with deciding whether there is enough evidence to discipline him. He refused to testify under oath or to answer questions. His lawyer, Victor Henderson, took questions from the committee but declined to answer many of them.

Smith said he is “painfully aware” how his arrest reflects on him and the House. However, he maintained his innocence. “I intend to fight this charge and clear my name,” Smith said. “I will continue to represent the interest of the people in [my] district. They elected me despite the fact that the government had leveled a charge against me just a week before the primary. In the same way that the people in the district did not abandon me, I will not abandon them.” Smith was appointed to his House seat. In March, he won the Democratic primary race in his district with 77 percent of the vote.

Henderson said that Smith may opt to testify before the committee in the future but does not want to do so until federal prosecutors grant the defense access to the evidence against Smith.

Committee members and House Counsel David Ellis, questioned Henderson about specific parts of the criminal compliant. Ellis read the portion of the complaint that describes Smith and the government source counting out the $7,000 that prosecutors say was a bribe. When directly asked, Henderson would say if Smith wrote the letter of support or took the $7,000. Henderson said that he would not comment “without full knowledge” of the information in the case. He said the only people who can provide this information are prosecutors. Henderson said that since federal investigators created a fake nonprofit and other documents as part of their sting, it is difficult to sort out what is real. “By the government’s own admission, they created documents — false documents. So without having access to the discovery [of evidence], who created what? I can’t tell you. All I can tell you is that they acknowledged creating false documents, fake email accounts, fake letters and things of that nature.”

Ellis said the committee was giving Smith the opportunity to present his side of the story. “This is not an adversarial proceeding, believe it or not. This is supposed to be a truth finding function. I am doing what no cross examiner would do, I’m giving you the floor to explain. … I’m trying to figure out, did he write this letter. It’s not a crime to write a letter. That’s just part of the story,” Ellis said.

He tried to push Henderson to deny or explain any aspects of the criminal complaint against Smith, but Henderson continued to stonewall and attempt to cast doubt on prosecutors' case. “The government lawyers put their pants on one leg at time just like the rest of us do. They’re susceptible to being dishonest. They’re susceptible to making mistakes. They’re susceptible sometimes to, you know, not doing the right thing.” Henderson focused on the government’s anonymous witness — who, according to the criminal complaint, brokered the deal between Smith and the day care. Henderson said the informant had been on the “government payroll” long before he met Smith and pointed out that he had criminal convictions and multiple arrests on his record. Henderson said any disciplinary action against Smith before the completion of his criminal case would be “premature.”  “Lots of people are charged every day of violating laws, and those charges turn out often times to be unfounded,” he said.

However, Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, said he thinks the committee probably has enough evidence to move forward and recommend some disciplinary action based on the criminal complaint against Smith. He said that lawmakers had to make a “judgment call” when they impeached former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and removed him from office before his criminal case had been resolved, and he sees parallels between that situation and the current one. “I’m not sure how many [more] times this committee is going to meet before we begin our deliberations,” he said to Henderson and Smith.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, the chair of the investigative committee, said the committee can consider Smith’s decision not to go under oath or take questions when deciding whether to recommend disciplinary action to the full House. She said the committee will regroup and decide the next step. “I think we all need a little bit of time to reflect on this and think about what we’ve heard to day,” said Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat.

 As the committee weighs its options and the criminal case against Smith proceeds, he continues in his position as a legislator. Henderson said Smith has been going to work each day at his legislative office and attending session days in Springfield and that his constituents should be proud. “Everybody, whether you’re a dentist or a news reporter or a lawyer, you’re going to have good days and bad days. And the test of a man is when he has his back up against a wall and shows us. Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, they all had bad days, and they all persevered,” Henderson told reporters after today’s hearing: “You don’t really understand what a man is made of until he’s tested. And I think that there are a whole lot of people who admire him to be able to stand up like he has as opposed to caving. That speaks to his character.”

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