Just one week before Election Day, State Rep. Derrick Smith was arrested by federal agents Tuesday and charged with bribery for allegedly accepting $7,000 in cash for supporting a $50,000 state grant he believed a day care center was seeking.
Smith, who was appointed to his seat last year, did not realize he was dealing with an under-cover informant when he had conversations about arranging the grant and the bribe, according to the criminal complaint.
Smith, a Democrat who represents the 10th District on the West and Northwest sides, was charged with one count of accepting a bribe. The 48-year-old appeared in court this afternoon and was scheduled to be released on a $4,500 personal bond.
Smith is a protege and former precinct captain of Secretary of State Jesse White and childhood friend of Ald. Walter Burnett. The 27th Ward alderman once described Smith as “like a brother to me.”
Smith was appointed to the House seat last year after Annazette Collins was appointed to the state Senate. He is now locked in a primary battle with Tom Swiss, a former director of the Cook County Republican Party who is running as a Democrat in the overwhelmingly Democratic and majority African American district.
Swiss has attracted attention for billboards that feature a black construction worker instead of Swiss, who is white.
“It’s a sad day in Illinois,” Swiss said. “I would call for Derrick Smith to both resign and not continue the race any further. This demonstrates a significant character flaw. I would call on [Speaker of the House] Mike Madigan to withdraw any support of him. He has weighed in with $50,000 or $60,000; staff members and mailings.”
State GOP Chair Patrick Brady echoed the call: “Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Smith has taken nine times as much money from Speaker Madigan as he is alleged to have received in bribes. I urge Speaker Madigan to immediately end any and all financial contributions to Mr. Smith, and also to join me in asking for his resignation as State Representative and remove his name from the ballot.”
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said, “I haven’t heard anything about it. I wouldn’t be able to say anything.”
White’s camp, which would not say whether the secretary of state believes Smith should step down, issued only a brief statement on White’s behalf.
“I am very disappointed with the conduct alleged in the charges,” White said in the prepared statement. “I am confident this case will be handled fairly and justly by the judicial system.”
A voicemail left at Smith’s residence was not immediately returned Tuesday.
According to federal prosecutors, one of Smith’s political workers was secretly cooperating with the feds. The two had “numerous conversations” about helping a fictional owner of a daycare center get a state grant in exchange for a political contribution, according to the criminal complaint unsealed after Smith’s arrest.
On March 2, Smith wrote an official letter of support for the $50,000 Early Childhood Construction Grant from the state’s Capital Development Board, according to the feds.
It read, “As a State Representative for the West Humboldt Park neighborhood, I support [Daycare Owner’s purported organization] in their application for a $50,000 Early Childhood Construction Grant from the Illinois Capital Development Board,” according to the complaint.
In return, the confidential informant gave Smith $7,000 cash, purportedly from the daycare owner, the complaint alleges.
Smith told the informant he did not want the $7,000 in a cashier’s check because he didn’t want any trace of the money, according to the complaint.
Just before 3 p.m. Saturday, the informant allegedly met with Smith in Smith’s car and counted out $7,000 in $100 bills.
The next day, Smith called the informant and told him to meet Smith in his car in an alley behind the informant’s house, according to the feds. The informant said Smith gave him $1,000 in 20- and 50-dollar bills and told him he would give him $1,000 more later.
The bribery charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The complaint charges that immediately after Smith’s appointment to the state House of Representatives last year he approached the informant and offered to pretend the informant was a contractor in order to get him a state contract. Smith allegedly said that money would be in exchange for the informant’s help on Smith’s campaign and Smith would take a “fee” from that contract in exchange for arranging it.
The informant declined the offer but he told Smith of a woman who ran a day care center and might be willing to donate money in exchange for a state grant. That led to the criminal complaint.
In his re-election bid, Smith has the strong backing of Democratic party officials, including Burnett and White, the Democratic ward committeeman, who helped get him appointed to the state House.
Swiss said it came as no surprise to him that the complaint alleges that Smith ordered the informant to take down Swiss’ campaign signs.
“We had 1,500 yard signs disappear,” Swiss said, adding, “I put up 34 billboards.”
Smith grew up in Cabrini Green with Burnett, who handpicked him to be 27th Ward Superintendent.
But Smith was fired from the $72,528-a-year job in 2005 amid allegations he used city equipment and personnel to do private landscaping work and improperly used state-financed Earnfare workers to lighten the load of city employees.
“In my job with the city of Chicago, I did nothing wrong,” Smith has said through a spokesman.
At the time, Streets and Sanitation officials refused to explain why Smith had been fired. Smith served as a precinct captain in the 27th Ward Regular Democratic Organization run by Burnett and Committeeman White.
“It’s painful. He’s like a brother to me. If it was my brother, I’d feel the same way,” Burnett said in 2005. “Anyone who loses their employment is painful to me. I know they’ve got families to feed. . . . Whatever happened, he has to deal with it with his lawyer.”
Smith was employed in the secretary of state’s office under White from December 2006 until March 2011, when White helped engineer his appointment to the House to replace Collins, who had moved to the Senate.
Smith worked in the secretary of state’s accounting and revenue division. State payroll records show he was paid $88,152 annually in White’s office, more than $20,000 more than the $67,836 salary he receives as a state representative.
Besides helping secure Smith’s appointment to the House, White also backed Smith when he ran unsuccessfully in 2010 against County Commissioner Earlean Collins, who was backed then by former state Sen. Rickey Hendon (D-Chicago).
contributing: Art Golab