CHICAGO – An attorney for state Rep. Derrick Smith cautioned an Illinois House committee Wednesday that it seemed to be rushing to judgment on bribery accusations against the Chicago Democrat before examining the evidence.
Smith was arrested in March in an FBI sting in which he's accused of accepting a $7,000 bribe in exchange for helping what he thought was a day care center obtain a state grant. He has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges. Despite his arrest, Smith easily won his March primary battle and remains on the November ballot. Top Democrats have been calling on him to resign, but he has refused.
On Wednesday his attorney, Victor Henderson, told a House panel that any attempt to conclude their inquiry, which is separate from the federal criminal case, before the November election would undermine its fairness and raise questions about whether it is politically motivated.
He took issue with a push to require evidence to be presented to the panel by Friday, noting that federal prosecutors had only supplied him with their documents in the case in the past few days.
"It is impossible to be fair and to be deliberate and to hear evidence and to do these things by Friday," Henderson told the panel.
He also noted that he is bound by a time-consuming process of having to get a judge's permission before presenting the House panel with any evidence that will be used in the federal trial. A protective order issued in the federal proceedings aims to keep the House panel from hearing evidence that could interfere with the prosecution's case.
"Here we have people who are ready apparently to make the decision without having access to the information," Henderson said of the House panel in comments to reporters after Wednesday's session.
Democratic Rep. Lou Lang, who is helping present the case against Smith before the House panel, told committee members that he believed Smith and his attorney have had ample time to request information from the government to defend their case.
"Neither the election nor the federal prosecution should hold up the proceeding of the House of Representatives to determine whether there's a member among us who has A: either violated a law, or B: violated his public trust," Lang said.
An earlier House committee concluded there was enough evidence to warrant further inquiry. The present committee is tasked with reviewing any additional evidence and making a recommendation to the full House on whether to exonerate or find Smith at fault. In the latter event, the panel would also recommend a punishment, which could include reprimand, censure or expulsion.
Their recommendation would have to be approved by a two-thirds vote in the full House.
A status hearing in the federal case is scheduled for Thursday.