When former state lawmaker and government cooperator Roger “The Hog” Stanley died last week, there was a quote in his death notice that was tough to miss: He was “living the good life in Costa Rica.”
It brought back memories of those salacious headlines, now more than a decade old, of Stanley bankrolling politicians’ trips to Costa Rica, including paying for prostitutes as he angled to win contracts for his direct-mail business.
It got me digging back into Stanley’s role into Operation Safe Road, the probe that eventually ensnared former Gov. George Ryan. The investigation was wrought with widespread corruption that snaked in and out of state government, into agencies like Metra and McPier. It involved outright lies to investigators, concocting false evidence, cash bribes, political patronage and for Stanley, pension padding.
He eventually admitted to all of it. And for his crimes?
He was sentenced to two years behind bars. It was a soft slap on the wrist for what could have turned out to be, save the spilling to authorities, a lengthy prison term.
It’s a lesson learned again and again in federal court. If you get entangled with federal authorities: yes, you have every right to fight back, but if they have the goods on you, good luck to you.
Their conviction rate hovers in the 95 percent range. That’s because unlike state court, where prosecutors are compelled to bring cases against certain types of crimes, the feds pick and choose their investigations. They take time to build them then weigh whether they believe they can win the case before publicly charging.
Fast-forwarding to the present, we have state Rep. Derrick Smith’s trial underway at 219 S. Dearborn. Smith, a West Side Democrat, is charged with taking a $7,000 cash bribe. He’s on tape counting cash and separately, authorities say, he’s on record telling FBI agents “I f—-ed up,” after his arrest. Smith is charged with accepting a cash bribe in exchange for writing a letter of support for a day care operator seeking a $50,000 state grant.
Smith is no doubt rolling the dice by going to trial.
The evidence doesn’t look good. If he’s convicted, then all of his actions after arrest; asking for trial delays, including just a week before trial, and refusing to leave his statehouse seat — even after he was kicked out — will likely be factored against him. That will be on top of a penalty for going to trial. Prosecutors will advocate strenuously for lower sentences for those who cooperate and help them avoid the cost of trial.
It’s not always a fair system. Take the example of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s onetime chief of staff John Harris, who was arrested on the same day as his boss in 2008. Harris arguably did little different than other advisers who weren’t charged and given immunity in the case.
Harris didn’t want to gamble with a jury though, likely in part because he didn’t want to be swept up into the Blagojevich negativity storm. Harris pleaded guilty to a narrow charge, testified extensively at trial and served just 10 days in prison. But his marred record remains, and now that the 7th Circuit is looking at the validity of some of the charges against Blagojevich, Harris, too, must be scratching his head and wondering if he made the right call.
Smith’s case is far different though. It’s a straight up and down bribery case. He was clearly the target. Smith has pleaded not guilty to bribery, which carries a maximum 10 years in prison.
But if convicted, he could conceivably do more time than even the Hog Stanley, who spent years and years gaming the political system.
That’s because Stanley didn’t just open doors, he helped describe what was happening behind the doors that were opened. He screwed up but then fessed up.
For that, Stanley, at 71, spent his final days “living the good life.”
And Smith, if convicted, may one day look back at his trial and repeat his own words: “I f—ed up.”