SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (MCT) — For the first time in more than a century, Illinois House lawmakers on Friday will attempt to expel one of their own.
Back in 1905, rookie Democratic Rep. Frank D. Comerford of Chicago angered colleagues by suggesting the General Assembly was up for sale like a “public auction.” They took umbrage, saying Comerford “besmirched the good name and reputation of this General Assembly.”
Now rookie Democratic Rep. Derrick Smith of Chicago faces expulsion for allegedly taking a $7,000 bribe, a charge that arose from a federal sting in which authorities said they caught him on tape accepting $100 bills from a campaign aide working undercover for the FBI.
Comerford won back his seat in the very next election with a groundswell of grassroots support, eventually becoming a respected judge.
Smith faces a much more difficult path. He’s got Friday’s expulsion vote, with many lawmakers saying Smith likely will be tossed from the House. Either way, Smith then faces a federal criminal trial probably within the next year.
While the West Side legislator pleaded innocent in federal court, key House lawmakers said they have searched in vain for a record that shows Smith himself has ever testified to his colleagues that he didn’t take the money.
Smith, 48, appeared once before a House committee weighing his fate but did not take questions and only read a statement: “I intend to fight this charge and clear my name.”
“(Smith) said he was going to fight it, but he never said he didn’t do it,” said Rep. Lou Lang, the Skokie Democrat who served in a prosecutorial role before the special committee that recommended Smith’s expulsion.
While that sounds like it goes against the tenet of “innocent until proven guilty,” the level of proof needed to expel a lawmaker is not the same as guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard in a criminal case.
House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, predicted Smith will be expelled on an overwhelming vote.
“This particular example is egregious to the point of going to the core of the oath, the core of the job,” said Currie, who chaired the House disciplinary panel and is sponsoring the expulsion resolution.
At least one lawmaker plans to vote against Smith’s expulsion. Democratic Rep. Al Riley said clarity is needed on when a lawmaker should be reprimanded, censured or expelled to help legislators determine the best course of action.
“It’s great to have wide latitude,” said Riley, D-Olympia Fields, in an interview, “but wide latitude does not mean that the process should be devoid of meaningful guidelines.”
Riley maintained the more appropriate punishment for Smith may be censure, noting he has not been convicted of any crime and the House vote on expulsion is coming only weeks before the election.
The Nov. 6 election does provide a ray of hope to Smith. Like Comerford back in the day, Smith could win election and head back to Springfield in January. Smith already scored a March 20 primary victory despite his arrest a week earlier, but West Side Democratic leaders urged voters to support Smith in that contest because they expected him to drop out afterward. Smith has stayed put.
The Democratic ward bosses who appointed Smith last year, including Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, are lined up against him and support a third-party candidate. But if Smith gets the boot Friday and goes on to win the election, he could not be expelled a second time based on the same set of findings, something akin to a legal provision against double jeopardy.
Winning election wouldn’t put Smith in the clear, however. A conviction at his federal corruption trial could place him behind bars instead of behind his wooden desk in the ornate House chamber. The federal case against Smith alleges he thought the money he took represented a payoff from a fictitious day care operator who wanted him to write an official letter supporting a bid for a $50,000 state grant. Smith allegedly insisted upon cash, saying, “I don’t want no trace of it.”
Unless Smith makes a surprise decision to resign early, colleagues say he will be an ex-lawmaker by Friday afternoon. That prediction comes despite the need for a two-thirds vote — 79 of 118 lawmakers — to show him the door.
Smith and his attorney did not return requests for interviews leading up to the House showdown.
Friday’s hearing is remarkable because it has been so long since the House expelled a lawmaker, especially given Illinois’ history of crooked politicians. The Smith expulsion vote also comes at a time when several federal subpoenas have been served for information about grant funding that lawmakers advocated and about legislative scholarships that they handed out to political contributors.
The hearing marks the third time a state official has come before the House under longtime Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.
During the late 1990s, Madigan oversaw hearings that ultimately concluded Supreme Court Justice James Heiple should not be ousted following a high-profile vetting of questions over alleged abuse of power.
A little more three years ago, Madigan oversaw the impeachment of then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who ended up in federal prison for trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Barack Obama was elected president.
The Smith expulsion case, first brought by Republicans, is a bit of an embarrassment for Madigan, whose Democratic majority fund poured money into Smith’s primary campaign for polling, mailings and troops.
The Blagojevich impeachment provided high drama, but that’s not the situation with Smith, an appointed lawmaker whose biggest moment in the spotlight was getting arrested.
Former 44th Ward Alderman Dick Simpson said the Blagojevich case has led to heightened public and political concern about corruption.
“There seems to be some sensitivity that what might have been acceptable before Blagojevich is no longer acceptable,” said Simpson, head of the political science department at University of Illinois at Chicago.
Lawmakers involved in this rare moment in Springfield see the Smith case as more than a mere footnote.
“For anybody in the legislature right now, including the speaker, this is the first time we’ve confronted a step like this,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, the Northbrook Democrat who led the first of two panels that looked into the Smith case. “We tried to be cognizant in the process that we were breaking new ground. It feels very significant and very historic.”
To get a sense of how long it has been since the last expulsion, consider this: the Cubs won their last World Series three years after Comerford got bounced.
Only a few weeks into his term, Comerford got into hot water when he delivered an address on Jan. 27, 1905, to students and faculty of his alma mater, the Illinois College of Law in Chicago.
Comerford minced few words in a sweeping set of accusations of payoffs and shakedowns, but one reported statement resonated more than most: “To say the Illinois legislature is a great public auction, where special privileges are sold to the highest corporation bidders, is to put the statement mildly.”
Hearings immediately broke out. The frustrated lawmaker suggested it was hard to get people to say in public what they had told him in private.
“I have had information from witnesses, that have already come and told me, ‘What I told you is in confidence. I have the goods, but if you try to pull me into it, I will deny what I said,’ ” Comerford told his interrogators.
Comerford argued that his lecture was aimed at the prior General Assembly and not the newly seated one in which he was just elected, but that point didn’t make a difference.
When the Comerford case hit the House floor, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported, “Comerford shook his fist in the faces of his enemies and called them liars, and his enemies shook their fists in his face and called him a liar.”
Following a four-hour debate, the House voted 121-13 to expel Comerford and told him to leave.
Since that time, the number of similar cases have been sparse, according to legislative researchers. One arose in 1935 when a lawmaker called for two colleagues, including Lottie Holman O’Neill, the first woman in the House, to be condemned as unworthy of membership for introducing a resolution critical of Gov. Henry Horner and President Franklin Roosevelt. The co-sponsor of the resolution apologized, and the matter was expunged from the House Journal.
In 1976, Democratic Rep. Gerald Shea, a longtime ally of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, came under scrutiny following a resolution that accused him of having a conflict of interest between his private law practice and his public actions. Shea was exonerated in a resolution approved 154-7 and has been a successful lobbyist at the Capitol for decades.
Looking toward Friday, Republican Rep. Chapin Rose of Mahomet said he is still unsure whether Smith will bother to show, but does not expect a lengthy spectacle: “I think this will be relatively quick.”