Ill. House might seek US aid to review Rep. Smith

SPRINGFIELD — The leader of an Illinois House committee investigating alleged misconduct by a lawmaker wants to find out how much federal prosecutors can reveal about their bribery case against Rep. Derrick Smith.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, will convene the rare proceeding in Springfield Tuesday. It will determine whether Smith’s actions are enough to warrant discipline that could lead to expulsion.

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald charged the Chicago Democrat after he allegedly accepted a $7,000 bribe in exchange for his endorsement of what he thought was a daycare center’s state grant application.

A spokesman for Fitzgerald declined comment Monday on the proposal. Although she doesn’t anticipate the committee gathering much of its own evidence, Nekritz said the committee should try to collect information beyond the criminal complaint.

“We need to ask the question of the U.S. attorney what they’re willing to provide us because if we didn’t we would simply be acting on allegations of which no one has testified or proved,” Nekritz said Monday.

House rules spell out proceedings for reviewing a member’s conduct that could lead to reprimand, censure or expulsion.

Nekritz will lead the panel of three Democrats and three Republicans. If it determines discipline is warranted, a separate committee will decide that.

If the committee sends a letter to prosecutors, the committee would be inactive until it gets a response. If there’s no assistance the U.S. attorney can provide, “then it will be a fairly short proceeding,” Nekritz said.

“We will just have to engage in a discussion among the committee as to whether or not we think that the criminal complaint is sufficient to send it to the next level,” she said.

Smith was arrested in what authorities say was an undercover sting just a week before Illinois’ legislative primary election. Democratic party leaders were silent on whether Smith should quit before last week’s tally, where he won 77 percent of the vote over an opponent who used to be a Republican activist.

After Smith saved the seat for the party, several powerful Democrats said Smith should resign, including his former employer and political sponsor, Secretary of State Jesse White.

Now if Smith steps aside, Democrats may hand-pick his replacement.

Smith has resisted and did not return messages seeking comment Monday. Nekritz said she’s been told neither Smith nor his attorney will attend the hearing.

Before the election, Gov. Pat Quinn warned against judging Smith before a jury rendered a verdict, but the day after the primary, the Democratic governor said Smith should resign because of the “cloud hanging over his head.”

At an appearance in Springfield Monday, Quinn said Smith would “do himself a favor by resigning” before the House expels him. He would not explain why he’s now willing to call for his ouster after much more restrained remarks last week.

Illinois Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan, whose political fund poured more than $60,000 in aid into Smith’s primary race, would not comment on Smith after his arrest and now says it would be improper to say anything because, as House speaker, he set up the review.

Investigating committee member Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, said it’s not awkward to sit in judgment of a colleague, but “unfortunate.”

“It’s unfortunate that we have to have this conversation,” Davis said. “It isn’t awkward. We’ll do what we have to do.”

The investigation was triggered when five House members — two more than necessary — sought the review in a petition to Madigan. They were all Republicans. One of them, Rep. Jim Sacia of Pecatonica, will present a written list of suggested charges, which is intended to guide the committee in deciding how far its review should go, according to House rules.

Any activity involving Smith will remain in the House. The Senate will not be involved.

That differs from an impeachment proceeding run by the House in December 2008 after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested on political corruption charges, which later earned him a 14-year sentence in federal prison.

In Blagojevich’s case, a committee’s investigation led to a House vote to impeach. The Senate tried Blagojevich on the impeachment charge and voted to remove him from office in January 2009.

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