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Thursday, March 22, 2012 03:58 am

Rep. Genius, and a kickback scheme gone awry

Appointed state Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago, hasn’t been in the House very long, but few would ever have picked him as a future legislative star. He stumbles badly during debates, isn’t well informed on the issues and has obviously had a lot of trouble getting his arms around his new job.

In other words, he probably won’t be missed.

Smith was arrested last week on federal bribery charges. The feds say a campaign worker allegedly told them that Smith was anxious about fundraising problems and was willing to trade favors for checks. After being told a daycare center owner was willing to pony up big bucks in exchange for an official letter requesting a $50,000 state grant, Rep. Smith allegedly pounced on the opportunity.

Rep. Smith’s fundraising problems were abating, however. Just before his arrest last week, the legislator’s campaign had reported raising about $57,000 from several established state political action committees over the previous few days.

No longer in dire need of campaign money, Smith apparently decided to get some cash for himself. He allegedly worked it out with his campaign worker that he wanted $7,000 in cash from what turned out to be a fictitious daycare center owner. Smith rejected a cashier’s check because he didn’t want a paper trail, but then he offered to kick back part of the bribe via check to the campaign worker.

Now, first of all, what person with even half a brain believes that a daycare center owner has $7,000 in cash laying around? And what kind of idiot would also believe that the aforementioned daycare center owner would be willing to give that $7K to an appointed, backbench freshman in exchange for a state grant recommendation letter?

I mean, really, a grant letter from Rep. Smith is supposed to be some sort of slam dunk? You’d have to be truly stupid to believe this was a “legit” offer.

And, secondly, you’re gonna write the campaign worker a kickback check as part of your grand scheme? Really? Hello? Is anybody at home in that cranium?

Rep. Genius came to the General Assembly courtesy of Secretary of State Jesse White, who is also the 27th Ward Democratic Committeeman, despite the fact that Smith had been fired from his City of Chicago job a few years ago. The Sun-Times discovered that Smith had “used city equipment and personnel to do private landscaping work and improperly used state-financed Earnfare workers to lighten the load of city employees.”

It ain’t easy to get fired from a city job, but Smith somehow managed to anyway, and White dutifully hired him at the Secretary of State’s office. And then, despite his questionable past, White installed Smith in the House when then state Rep. Annazette Collins was appointed to the Senate after state Sen. Rickey Hendon retired.

Secretary White has been trying to obtain a foothold in that particular legislative district for years, to no avail. He fought hard with former Sen. Hendon.

White never really got along with Collins when she was in the House, either. When he helped appoint Collins to the Senate, White told the media that Collins had probably just promoted herself out of a job. White also controlled neither former state Rep. Art Turner nor Turner’s son, Art Turner, Jr. So, Rep. Smith’s appointment finally gave him that long-sought foothold and once White took care of that he picked a candidate to challenge Sen. Collins in the Democratic primary, Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins, who ran for mayor last year.

Rep. Smith’s political sponsor is Ald. Walter Burnett, Secretary White’s handpicked city council member. Rep. Smith and Ald. Burnett grew up together in Cabrini Green, the housing project where White has recruited members of his world-renowned Jesse White Tumblers team.

White issued a statement last week saying he was “disappointed” in Smith. But White said infinitely more than Smith’s fellow Democrat, House Speaker Michael Madigan, who went completely mum.

There was, of course, a tricky political dimension to this arrest. Smith’s Democratic primary opponent, Tom Swiss, has been a Republican for years. Swiss is a former director of the Cook County Republican Party and is a white man running in a majority black district. If Madigan called on Smith to resign it would essentially have meant letting a Republican into his caucus. Some things transcend mere bribery arrests.  

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.
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