He was hungry for “cheddar” — but state Rep. Derrick Smith wasn’t talking about cheese, the feds say.
He was discussing a $7,000 bribe, prosecutors said during opening statements at the start of Smith’s trial in U.S. District Court.
And transcripts of secretly recorded conversations in which Smith allegedly solicited and tried to hide the bribe in return for his support of a 2012 state grant application formed the centerpiece of the government’s explanation of the case to jurors Thursday morning.
The wiretapped conversations implicate Smith in bribery and extortion “in his own words” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Donovan said.
In one, Smith allegedly asked a campaign aide who was wearing a wire how they would collect the bribe from a daycare business owner seeking his support, asking “How she going to get the cheddar to us?”
In another, he allegedly asked, “What would keep everything clean, you know what I’m saying?”
And in a third, Donovan said, Smith told the government mole who acted as his bag man, “I don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing… Nobody knows what’s going on between you and me.”
Soon after that conversation, Donovan said, Smith accepted 70 $100 bills to write a letter of support for the daycare business’s grant application. He hid it under a chest by his bed, Donovan added, then, after his arrest, handed back $2,500 and “admitted he took the $7,000 for the letter.”
Faced with what seems a daunting case to defend, Smith’s attorney Vic Henderson tried to make the government mole the focus of the case during his opening statement.
The mole, a convicted felon and campaign worker called “Pete,” was paid a total of $25,000 and “as much as $1,000 a week” by the FBI and, Henderson suggested, took advantage of both Smith and a “young and relatively inexperienced [FBI] agent.”
The mole was someone who was “down on his luck — he always needed money, always needed a place to stay,” Henderson said. “Because Derrick was a kind-hearted guy, he tried to help out.”
But the mole tricked both Smith and the feds by recording only some of the phone calls and conversations he had with Smith, Henderson alleged.
And Henderson denied Smith had confessed to the FBI, saying Smith had merely admitted he “messed up” by trusting the mole.
Though he acknowledged Smith wrote the letter in support of the grant application, Henderson said “that was his job — he supported anyone who came to him from his district.”
Calling Smith a “baby legislator” who was desperate to hold onto his seat and needed money, he told jurors “there’s a lot you haven’t heard.”
Jurors Thursday did hear testimony from three witnesses, including Smith’s former campaign worker Kelly Tarrant, who said Smith had an “extremely archaic” system for reporting campaign donations, had accepted cash donations previously and had failed to disclose the $7,000 on his campaign finance forms.
But U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman told jurors to disregard “irrelevant” questions Smith’s attorneys asked Tarrant about House Speaker Mike Madigan and Secretary of State Jesses White — both of whom backed Smith.
Smith became the first lawmaker tossed out of the Illinois House in more than a century when he was charged in 2012, but won re-election later that year.
He lost a primary earlier this year, despite strong financial support from Madigan’s organization.
The trial, which Smith unsuccessfully tried to delay so he could vote in Springfield in favor of extending a temporary income tax hike, is expected to last a week.
Prosecutors could start playing the tapes of Smith Friday.