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Letters of support: New corruption avenue in Illinois?

SPRINGFIELD – Your charity program may qualify for state grant money if you drum up support. Who better to get in your corner than your state representative?

Endorsement letters are a common practice in Illinois politics. But one lawmaker’s alleged attempt to make a buck off backing a state-grant application leaves many questions, including whether there’s yet another avenue for politicians to line their pockets in corruption-rich Illinois.

State Rep. Derrick Smith was indicted last week on a federal bribery charge for accepting $7,000 in exchange for his support of a grant application by a nonprofit set up by the federal government in a sting, according to prosecutors.

It seems like an easy way for an unscrupulous pol to cash in. The state seal and an officeholder’s name over a request seeking assistance is a time-honored tradition that embodies constituent service, the backbone of lawmaker life.

One government watchdog says the Smith case demands that more light be shed on legislators’ literature. But those who have dealt with grants for years say a written testimonial from a politician doesn’t carry as much weight as might be expected, and shrinking budgets mean state agencies giving out grants are returning to tested vendors with less need for outside validation.

There’s no evidence that Smith tried the alleged scheme previously.

Since his appointment to office last spring, the Chicago Democrat wrote at least one other letter of support for a grant, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request. The charity operator who received the endorsement said she requested the letter and that there was never talk of a quid pro quo.

Smith did not respond to requests for comment. His attorney, Victor Henderson, said Smith is innocent of the bribery charge and he was unaware of the previous letter his client had sent to the charity.

Even if the alleged bribe had succeeded, there’s little reason to expect the overall practice could produce much return.

Charities seek government money because they don’t have a lot to begin with, said U.S. Rep. Danny Davis. The Chicago Democrat said he writes numerous endorsement letters, including one that turned up along with Smith’s in a stack of lawmaker-written letters for the charity that were obtained by AP.

“I’ve never had anyone offer me a dime for a letter of support,” Davis said. “They come seeking support. People don’t think of giving, not in my experience.”

“Pay to Play” nearly became the state political motto in the past decade, during which Illinois watched as two consecutive governors were imprisoned on corruption convictions. It’s not hard to imagine that somewhere in Illinois’ long and murky history, at least one letter of recommendation has carried a price tag.

Campaign contributions often are offered up from people who benefit from state money. An AP analysis in 2004 of $29 million in lawmakers’ pet projects, tacked onto the budget without standard legislative review, found they went to groups tied to at least $2 million in campaign contributions. That’s not illegal as long as there’s no direct exchange.

Smith’s case should prompt easier public inspection of legislative correspondence, said Brian Gladstein, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. Any cause a lawmaker fights for by putting pen to paper should be searchable in an online database, he said.

“We need to make sure that fight is fought morally, ethically and on legal grounds,” he said.

Just one letter of recommendation from Smith showed up in responses to Associated Press public-records requests of two big state-grant distributors, the Capital Development Board and the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

The Nov. 30, 2011, dispatch to CDB favors a $3 million grant to a social service agency in Smith’s district, Breakthrough Urban Ministries. It’s one of a dozen letters, nearly all verbatim, from sources as varied as the local congressman, Davis, and partner charity groups.

The missives are not evaluated and scored like other parts of an application, but are “an indicator that the proposed project has local support,” CDB spokesman Dave Blanchette said.

Arloa Sutter, Breakthrough’s executive director, asked Smith for his endorsement, but said, “Never, at any time, did either of us have any conversation about money being exchanged or other favor.”

Breakthrough is seeking the final $3 million it needs to construct a $15 million “Familyplex” to house school programs for the low-income children it serves. Grants should be awarded by summer, Blanchette said.

Federal prosecutors have not contacted anyone at the agency, Sutter said. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s spokesman declined to comment.

Congressman Davis, who also spent years evaluating grant applications as a public schoolteacher, said he focused on a project’s quality, not who endorsed it. But he knows grant applications require community backing — one reason he continues to churn them out.

“I do gobs of them,” he said.

Smaller state budgets make who you know less of an issue, according to John Porter, executive director of the American Grant Writers’ Association. With fewer dollars to give, more selective bureaucrats rely less on newcomers needing letters of introduction.

“States are sending out notices to organizations that are already qualified,” Porter said.


John O’Connor can be reached at

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