Illinois Indicted legislator's case plagues Democrats State rep was arrested on federal bribery charges just before primary

By Sophia Tareen

Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) -- Apparently one indicted Illinois politician making bizarre public speeches and refusing to leave office isn't enough.

The political saga of state Rep. Derrick Smith echoes, in miniature, the corruption case of former governor Rod Blagojevich -- from a federal wiretap to the big-time embarrassment for Illinois Democrats

The latest allegations against Smith have left his party looking helpless at a time when lawmakers are trying to dig the state out of its deepest financial hole in history, deal with billions in unpaid bills, restructure the state pension system and reform Medicaid.

"It's another black eye for us," said Secretary of State Jesse White, Smith's former mentor who's now leading the charge to kick him out.

White said Democrats had no choice but to take an eyebrow-raising measure -- run one of their own against Smith in November.

The last time Democrats had an embarrassment like this on the ballot, things turned out differently. Pawn shop owner Scott Lee Cohen was a short-lived nominee for lieutenant governor in 2010. After accusations of domestic abuse, steroid abuse and more went public, he wilted under pressure from Democratic leaders to drop out.

But experts point out key differences with Smith. First, he's already an office holder and has incentive to stay, as stepping down might look like an admission of guilt. That gives him the benefit of going through legal proceedings as a public official and he'll keep earning a paycheck.

"After you've been indicted, no one wants to hire you," said Dick Simpson, a former alderman and political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He notes that influential Cook County Commissioner William Beavers, who has pleaded not guilty to federal tax charges, has stayed in office as well.

Smith, who was appointed to fill a vacancy, shocked Democratic leaders when he was arrested on a federal bribery charge just before Illinois' March primary. Federal prosecutors say he took a $7,000 bribe for backing a state grant application on behalf of what he thought was a day care center. Turns out, it was a set up by federal authorities.

Instead of immediately shunning him, Democrats -- including White -- made the perplexing move of encouraging voters to back Smith. That's because his Democratic primary opponent was a former Republican official and a Democrat in name only.

"It put Democratic leaders in a complete bind," said David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, and left the party to choose between "the accused criminal or wolf in sheep's clothing."

Once Smith won with an overwhelming majority, Democrats switched course. Calls to resign came from White, Chicago aldermen and Gov. Pat Quinn. A House committee began their investigation.

Smith missed votes in Springfield and has kept a low profile. He has declined interview requests, and has only spoken publicly about the charge once.

"The people in my district elected me ... even after the government charged me with wrongdoing and that's because they believed in me and what I will do to represent them in Springfield," he said the April day he pleaded not guilty. "God gives us all a cross to bear and this lawsuit is mine."

But Smith's attorney, Victor Henderson, is anything but low-key. His law partner is Sam Adam Jr., the razzle-dazzle attorney who represented Blagojevich in his first corruption trial. Henderson quotes philosophers and R&B lyrics in proclaiming his client's innocence, and often draws comparisons to historical figures.

"Jesus, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, they had their trials and tribulations," said Henderson. "You want somebody who can take the heat of the battle and stand tall. There are so many legislators who will go with the wind and wilt."

Henderson portrays Smith as a victim of an unfair government probe with a tainted informant.

Smith has given no indication that he'll remove his name from the ballot, leaving Democrats to take the highly unusual step of forming a third party. It's only been done a handful of times in Illinois.

The committee for the third party, the 10th District Unity Party, settled on Chicago attorney Lance Tyson after two days of confirmation-style hearings last week.

But that process wasn't without another embarrassment. One finalist was the girlfriend of a Chicago alderman who served on the committee, a fact only disclosed in private deliberations for a process that was billed as open and transparent. White and others said that tainted her as a candidate, despite her qualifications as an insurance manager.

"If you have been burned as I have been burned," White said. "I'm going to be the most cautious in life."

Tyson, though, is no stranger to politics. He was legislative counsel to former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and chief-of-staff for former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, whose administration was blemished by corruption allegations and ethical problems.

Tyson and other Democrats have swept ties to Stroger under the rug, saying Smith was Stroger's aide for less than two years and resigned of his own accord. But it's bound to come up on the campaign trail.

Smith's attorney declined to discuss Democrats' efforts to boot out Smith. Henderson said his client's defiance shows what he is made of, and, to illustrate, quoted song lyrics from R&B group New Edition.

"Sunny days, everybody loves them," Henderson chanted. "Tell me, baby, can you stand the rain?"

Published: Wed, May 30, 2012


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