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House opens probe into bribery charges against lawmaker

Published: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 9:43 a.m. CST

SPRINGFIELD (MCT) — The Illinois House opened a special investigation Tuesday into a Chicago Democrat charged in federal court with taking a cash bribe, but Rep. Derrick Smith was not there to answer the allegations.

Smith faces the first House probe since then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now in prison, was investigated and eventually impeached after his December 2008 corruption arrest. The House also investigated a Supreme Court justice, James Heiple, in the 1990s. He was not impeached and remained on the bench.

Smith faces the potential of censure, reprimand or expulsion under the House procedures, which started with the investigative panel that convened Tuesday and could eventually bring his case before the full House.

The House last held a similar hearing involving a lawmaker in the 1970s, officials said. But Rep. Dennis Reboletti, R-Elmhurst, said it is the first time lawmakers have examined accusations that a colleague used his office to leverage a bribe.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, the investigative committee's chairwoman, contended that the allegations against Smith represented a "gross breach of public trust," but he is presumed innocent until proved otherwise.

The trigger for the legislative investigation was the federal bribery charges, and the committee plans to ask the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago whether it can provide any information behind the criminal complaint.

The next committee meeting is April 9.

Last week, Republicans brought the petition that triggered the bipartisan hearing of the Special Investigative Committee.

Smith was charged one week before the March 20 primary with taking a $7,000 cash bribe in a federal sting. Prosecutors said Smith agreed to the bribe in return for writing a favorable letter to state officials in support of a grant for a day care center. Federal authorities had created the fictional grant application as part of the sting, which involved an undercover informant.

Smith won the primary with 77 percent of the vote. The victory came after U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., and several other West Side Democrats encouraged voters to support Smith in the primary. They did not want the Democratic nomination to go to Tom Swiss, a former ranking official with the Cook County Republican Party.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, had pumped $60,000 into Smith's election before the arrest. He has since declined to comment on whether Smith should step down, citing his leadership position over the House investigation.

Leading Democrats who called for Smith to step down after his primary victory include Gov. Pat Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Jesse White.

The hope of many Democrats is that Smith can be talked into resigning from his seat in the House and giving up the nomination, moves that would allow Democratic ward bosses to pick a successor and a candidate for the November general election.

Smith has kept a low profile and has not returned to the House floor for legislative business since the charges. David Ellis, serving as the counsel of the committee, testified that he spoke to Smith by telephone and emailed him to make sure he was informed of the date and time of the hearing.

Nekritz said she did not believe the House has the ability to bar Smith from holding future office, as the Senate did when it removed Blagojevich from office. Short of getting convicted in court, Nekritz said, Smith still could run for the seat in the general election.

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