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Thursday, May 3, 2012 06:12 am

Legislature dawdles while public opinion tanks

State Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago) may have more legal troubles than his federal bribery indictment.

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has told the House’s Special Investigating Committee that his office’s investigation of Rep. Smith isn’t over yet. “I can tell you that our investigation of Representative Smith is continuing,” Fitzgerald wrote, which could be an indication that the government wants to pile on more charges.

But the “active” federal investigation also means that Fitzgerald decided to refuse to cooperate with the committee, which is charged with looking into the allegations in order to determine if any legislative action is warranted. Fitzgerald also asked the committee to not do any investigations beyond what is already in the public record, except for interviewing Smith himself.

Smith cannot be forced to testify to the special committee, but that refusal can be held against him when it comes time to recommend further action.

Fitzgerald wrote his letter on April 10, but the committee didn’t meet to discuss the letter until 16 days later. Another hearing may not happen for a couple of weeks. This thing is in real danger of dragging on through the summer if the committee doesn’t get its act together soon.

Last week, a member of the investigating committee privately defended the slow process to date, pointing to the time it took to kick Blagojevich out of office.

But Blagojevich was arrested on Dec. 8, 2008, and removed from office by the Senate on Jan. 29, 2009 -- a total of 53 days start to finish, including House impeachment hearings, two House impeachment votes (one before and one after new members were sworn in), Senate hearings and a full Senate trial and vote to remove.

Rep. Smith was arrested on March 13 -- 45 days before last week’s special committee meeting. By Blagojevich standards, Smith should be removed from office by the end of this week. But, as I write this, the House doesn’t appear to be even close to completing the first, small step in the process.

The special committee is the initial step in the process of removal (or other punishment). If the committee decides that punishment may be warranted, another committee will be appointed to decide what punishment, if any, should be meted out. Then the full House has to debate and vote on the matter. It will take a two-thirds majority to expel Smith.

There are indications that at least some Democratic members of the special committee aren’t yet completely convinced that this is a slam dunk case. As if being arrested after allegedly accepting $7,000 in cash in exchange for providing an official letter of recommendation and having it all caught on tape somehow isn’t enough to maybe warrant at least some sort of punishment. I mean, heck, even if the guy was entrapped (and the feds are pretty good about avoiding that here), he’s still heard on an FBI tape while a “cooperating witness” counts out a pile of cash for him.

Cooperating witness: “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Damn, stuck together. Six. Seven. Talk to you later.”

Smith: “You don’t want me to give you yours now? ... I’m gonna get you your two, man!”

The special committee is not required to follow legal niceties here. All the special committee has to do is decide whether punishment of some sort may be warranted. And if the committee’s members can’t resolve that simple question after 45 days, then we’ve got a much bigger problem at the Statehouse than I ever imagined.

Yes, I can totally understand why legislators don’t want to set a dangerous precedent of kicking out a fellow House member after an arrest. I completely agree that such a radical move should definitely not be a blanket policy in all cases. But Smith was arrested and indicted on federal bribery charges that were directly related to his official legislative duties. This was not a DUI, or some petty crime relating to his personal life or something trumped up by a local, partisan prosecutor.

A recent statewide poll I’ve seen showed that just 29 percent of likely Illinois voters approve of the job that the legislature is doing in Springfield while 61 percent disapprove. Endless dawdling on the Smith case won’t do anything to improve that pathetic standing with the public. It’s time to get this thing moving, already.

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