House panel seeks info from feds on Rep. Derrick Smith’s arrest

SHARE House panel seeks info from feds on Rep. Derrick Smith’s arrest
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Illinois Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Des Plaines, speaks during a legislative committee hearing investigating whether a House member, Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago, should be disciplined over a bribery charge on Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

SPRINGFIELD – A House panel opened a historic ethics inquiry into Rep. Derrick Smith Tuesday, agreeing to ask federal investigators for evidence in his bribery case that could be used to expel him from the Legislature.

Using a tactic from former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment, the House Special Investigative Committee voted 6-0 to reach out to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald for witnesses and other evidence that will be used against the West Side Democrat if his case goes to criminal trial.

Smith, who was not present Tuesday, was arrested two weeks ago in an undercover FBI sting in which he allegedly agreed to accept a $7,000 cash bribe in exchange for writing a letter on behalf of someone he believed was a day-care center operator seeking a $50,000 state grant. Despite being arrested days before the primary, Smith gained 77 percent of the vote and won his election.

“The precedent for what we’re asking from the U.S. attorney comes from the Blagojevich case, and it would be a list of witnesses, the confidential source, maybe the day-care center owner and maybe the people actually named in the criminal complaint, and then any documentation set forth in the criminal complaint,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), chairwoman of the six-member panel.

When the General Assembly impeached and ousted Blagojevich in 2009, it persuaded Fitzgerald to give up a series of audio tapes that became the evidentiary linchpin to drive the ex-governor from office.

Fitzgerald spokesman Randall Samborn declined comment about the House inquiry or its imminent request.

Nekritz said her panel, acting in a similar capacity to a criminal grand jury, will recommend whether disciplinary actions against Smith are warranted. If that happens, the matter then will go to a 12-member House panel for approval before going to the full House, which would have to vote by a two-thirds majority to expel Smith. He also could face lesser sanctions of a reprimand or censure, she said.

Never before has the House expelled one of its members because of ethics violations while the member is facing criminal charges.

“We are setting a pretty significant precedent here. This has never happened in the Illinois House that anyone can think of. It feels very heavy, and I think it’s an unfortunate but significant step we’re having to take,” Nekritz told reporters.

If Fitzgerald refuses to offer up any evidence for the House to use in its inquiry, lawmakers may be left with having to decide whether to expel Smith partly on the basis of unproven criminal allegations.

But state Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst), the panel’s ranking Republican, said he thinks that the committee and full House could oust Smith, if it wanted, for other reasons than what is stated in the criminal complaint.

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

Nekritz said the committee would reconvene the week of April 9 in Chicago.

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