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Indicted lawmaker a no-show at own hearing

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SPRINGFIELD — Even if indicted state Rep. Derrick Smith is expelled from the Illinois House, nothing stops voters from putting the Chicago Democrat back in the Legislature in the November general election.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD — Even if indicted state Rep. Derrick Smith is expelled from the Illinois House, nothing stops voters from putting the Chicago Democrat back in the Legislature in the November general election.

"There's nothing in the election code prohibiting someone expelled from seeking re-election," said Steve Sandvoss, general counsel for the Illinois State Board of Elections.

The Illinois House Special Investigative Committee was quickly formed to conduct a separate investigation into the federal charges against Smith. The federal government March 13 charged Smith with accepting a $7,000 bribe to steer a $50,000 state contract to a daycare facility.

If the committee decides the bribery charges have merit, a House tribunal can recommend a punishment, the harshest being expulsion from the House. The expulsion would be official with two-thirds of the members voting for the penalty.

Despite bribery charges, Smith trounced his primary opponent in the March 20 election and as of now hasn't stepped down and is still on the ballot for the November general election.

But the Illinois Constitution, which outlines how a legislator can be expelled, is silent on expulsion concerning re-election eligibility, said Kent Redfield, political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

"All the Legislature can do is affect his current status," Redfield said.

However, Redfield noted that if Smith is expelled, but not convicted by the federal government on the bribery charge before the election, the House could vote to not seat Smith after a general election win. Like an expulsion, two-thirds of the House must vote to prevent Smith from being sworn into the General Assembly.

If Smith is found guilty of the felony in federal court, he is ineligible to serve in the Legislature until after completing his punishment.

Repeated calls for comment to Smith by Illinois Statehouse News were not returned.

Smith has yet to resign his seat, despite calls from many people, including Gov. Pat Quinn and Secretary of State Jesse White, to do so.

Smith could be holding out on stepping down to get a better plea deal. The U.S. Attorneys' Manual states that resignation from office and withdrawing from an active candidacy "remain appropriate and desirable objectives in plea negotiations with public officials who are charged with federal offenses that focus on abuse of the office(s) involved."

While the federal case against Smith moves forward, so does the House investigation.

The first committee hearing outlined how the House will proceed with its investigation. Not many people attended, but one absence was particularly noticeable — Smith himself.

David Ellis, chief legal counsel to Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, said he had contacted Smith, by phone and email, about the hearings.

"I think it's clear that the subject of this investigation has been made fully aware of the date and time of the hearing. It was my understanding from yesterday that he was choosing not to appear today," Ellis said.

State Rep. Dennis Reboletti, R-Elmhurst, a member of the special committee, said it's Smith's prerogative not to appear.

"He has the right to come and testify, he has the right to defend himself, cross examine witnesses, look at the veracity of whatever exhibits we're going to move forward with … It's up to him if he wants to defend himself," Reboletti said.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, chairwoman of committee, said Smith also could testify and introduce evidence that could exonerate him.

Nekritz and Reboletti said the House's investigation would not interfere with the federal case, and the committee would run any subpoena by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who is leading the federal investigation.

"There is precedence for doing this. During the House investigation of Gov. (Rod) Blagojevich the special investigative committee agreed at the outset it would consult with Mr. Fitzgerald and avoid taking any action if he would consider it interference with an ongoing, federal investigation," Nekritz said.

The next House investigative committee hearing is expected in Chicago during the second week of April, said Nekritz.

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