By Ryan Haggerty, John Chase and Ray Long, Chicago Tribune –
CHICAGO — Illinois state Rep. Derrick Smith sat in a trusted campaign worker’s car Saturday afternoon, watching as the worker counted out $7,000 in $100 bills before handing over the cash, according to federal prosecutors.
Smith, a Democrat from Chicago, thought the money was a payoff from a purported day care operator who had wanted him to write an official letter supporting a bid for a $50,000 state grant, prosecutors alleged.
What Smith didn’t know was that the campaign helper was working undercover for the FBI and that the day care operator was a government creation. On Tuesday, just a week before he runs in Illinois’ primary election, Smith was arrested on a federal bribery charge.
The charge represents a blow for House Speaker Michael Madigan’s efforts to help Smith’s election to the district on Chicago’s Near West and Near Northwest Sides. The Democratic Majority fund, headed by Madigan and Tim Mapes, his chief of staff, has poured more in-kind contributions — $63,323 — into Smith’s campaign than any other candidate so far this election season, according to campaign records. In addition to paying for polling and mailings, some of Madigan’s top staffers also personally worked for Smith’s campaign, campaign records show.
In Smith’s primary race, a top Madigan attorney also played a role in getting a Democratic rival, Vetress M. Boyce, knocked off the ballot. An objection had been filed by a constituent who was represented by attorney Michael Kasper, legal counsel to the state Democratic Party led by Madigan.
On Tuesday both Tom Swift, Smith’s remaining challenger in next week’s primary, and Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady called on Madigan to cease all financial support for Smith and for Smith to step down from his $67,836-a-year post.
Smith worked on Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White’s staff when he was named to the legislative seat vacated by Annazette Collins on her appointment to succeed state Sen. Ricky Hendon, who resigned. Smith had previously worked as 27th Ward superintendent for Alderman Walter Burnett.
Asked by the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board to reveal something that would surprise voters, Smith wrote that as the youngest of 15, he understood “what it was like to live within a budget and to be accountable for my actions.”
In federal court Tuesday, Smith, 48, stood with his hands in his pockets as a prosecutor summarized the charge against him. He was released on a signature bond but left the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse without comment.
According to a criminal complaint lodged Tuesday, the informant told investigators that almost immediately after taking office, Smith tried to obtain a state grant to improperly pay the informant for campaign work.
The informant also told the FBI that Smith began talking about needing help with fundraising as soon as he was appointed, according to the complaint. Smith allegedly said he wanted contributions in the range of $5,000 to $7,000 and was willing to accommodate reasonable requests from donors who wanted something in return for their contributions.
The complaint revealed that the undisclosed informant has helped the FBI with other investigations over the last three or four years and was paid about $1,200 by the government for those efforts. For his help in recent months on the Smith probe, he was paid $4,000 by the FBI and given additional financial assistance to relocate.
The investigation against Smith began in December and involved dozens of telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings, most of which were secretly recorded by the informant, according to the complaint.
Smith and the informant appear to have had a close relationship, with the informant occasionally referring to him as “D,” according to the complaint. The two knew one another for six years, prosecutors said.
The informant has a prior arrest for domestic assault but no convictions, and he removed campaign signs of a Smith primary opponent while cooperating with the FBI, according to the complaint.
At the direction of law enforcement, the informant told Smith in December that he knew a day care operator who was hoping to obtain a state grant to cover repairs to the facility, according to the charge. As part of the ruse, the informant told Smith the woman owner might be willing to contribute to his campaign. Smith offered his help for a $5,000 contribution — a figure he later raised to $7,000, prosecutors alleged
The woman was fictional and the day care center — while real — was not actually applying for a state grant, authorities said.
Smith was recorded on several occasions agreeing to write a letter supporting the center’s grant application in exchange for the money, prosecutors alleged. On March 2, Smith’s office provided a letter written on his official letterhead supporting the center’s application for the grant, according to the charge.
Smith made it clear he wanted the bribe in cash, not a cashier’s check, saying, “I don’t want no trace of it,” according to the charge. He also said he wanted to “keep … everything clean,” even making sure that the people providing the bribe wouldn’t see him when turning over the money, prosecutors said.
The day after receiving the money, Smith drove to an alley behind the campaign worker’s home and allegedly gave him $1,000 in $20 and $50 bills, half of the worker’s payment for securing the bribe, prosecutors said.