Politics

Jurors Have Some Trouble Convicting Illinois Legislator of Bribery

by | June 11, 2014

By Jason Meisner

The case against state Rep. Derrick Smith might have seemed like a slam dunk since he was caught on undercover recordings accepting a $7,000 kickback, admitted to the FBI that he took the bribe and even showed them where he'd stashed some of the cash under his bed.

But as jurors debated the evidence over parts of two days before convicting him Tuesday, the panel struggled with what some considered the "sleazy" tactics the FBI used to go after Smith, a freshman legislator who was desperately trying to win the 2012 Democratic primary, one juror said in a telephone interview.

Jason Carter, 29, said the jury's reservations included the FBI's use of an undercover informant and two-time felon -- a man identified at trial only as "Pete" -- who repeatedly pushed the West Side legislator on a plan to extort a day care operator who needed a letter of support for a state grant. The scheme was a ruse concocted by federal agents.

"It didn't feel right to us," Carter said. "It's not like he went to a day care and shook them down. He went to an FBI day care...but that was not to be considered by us."

Finally, after four hours of sometimes-heated deliberations, the jury was able to use the judge's legal instructions to come to a unanimous verdict on each count of bribery and extortion, Carter said.

"It was rough," said Carter, a forklift driver from southwest suburban Romeoville. "Everybody in there was really splitting hairs because of the way the evidence came out."

Carter said jurors regarded Pete -- who did not testify at trial -- as "a slippery and disgusting character." For a time, the jury's foreman -- not Carter -- was strongly opposed to convicting Smith.

But in the end, it was Smith who convicted himself with his own words, caught on undercover recordings talking about "cheddar" and "seven stacks" of cash and insisting on hiding any paper trail of the kickback, according to Carter.

"He never said, 'Hey, listen Pete, I do these letters all the time and they are to help my constituents, not for my own personal gain,'" Carter said.

Smith, 50, a longtime political operative who was appointed to his seat in 2011, became the latest in a long line of Illinois public officials caught trying to use his position to line his pockets. Under state law, he automatically loses his legislative seat with his felony conviction. He was a lame duck legislator anyway since he lost the Democratic primary earlier this year.

Dressed in a dark brown suit and glasses, Smith kept his hands folded on the defense table and remained stoic as the verdict was announced in U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman's courtroom. In the courthouse lobby later, his eyes appeared to well up as he thanked constituents who had stood by him.

"We gave it a good fight," Smith told reporters. "It's God's will. God knows the truth about it all. The jurors just didn't see what God saw."

At a news conference, First Deputy U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro, a federal prosecutor for decades, was asked if Smith's conviction would send a message to politicians that it wasn't worth using their office for personal gain.

"You know, I'd like to say that I'm convinced that they have gotten the message," Shapiro said wryly. "But I'd be lying."

Shapiro defended the tactics of the investigation, saying federal authorities would be "grossly negligent" if they didn't follow up on tips, collect evidence and "let a jury decide whether or not this was the government overreaching and trying to entrap some poor innocent."

"We did just that...and the jury decided that he was a corrupt public official," Shapiro said.

Shapiro also defended the decision not to publicly release the identity of the informant, an unusual move for a public corruption trial. He said the U.S. Attorney's Office always tries to protect the identities of confidential sources if possible, in part because it encourages others to come forward. Smith's defense team was given detailed information on Pete, he said.

"They knew exactly who he was, how to get a hold of him," Shapiro said. "They talked to his lawyer. They knew that he was subpoenaed for trial if they chose to put him on the stand. So that's what's important."

Attorney Thomas Leinenweber, who represents Pete, confirmed to the Tribune that he'd spoken to attorneys for Smith, but he declined to elaborate.

Smith's 10-day trial centered on the dozens of telephone and face-to-face conversations secretly recorded by Pete, who led Smith to think a day care operator would pay him a $7,000 bribe in return for an official letter of support to obtain a $50,000 state grant.

Smith was captured on the recordings referring to the bribe money as "cheddar" and talking about the best way to collect the kickback without leaving a paper trail.

A little more than a week after Smith signed a letter of support on his official state letterhead, the informant secretly recorded a meeting in the legislator's car, where Pete counted out seven wads of $1,000 cash each and handed the money to Smith in a white envelope.

"One, two, three, four, five. Damn, stuck together. Six, seven," Pete said in the recording played at trial.

The payoff came in the days before a contested Democratic primary in 2012 as Smith was struggling to raise campaign funds for his first election and busy knocking on doors to raise his name recognition, the undercover recordings showed.

Carter said jurors found no joy in convicting Smith. After the decision was announced, they discussed how no one could bring themselves to look at Smith.

"His name is going to be in the history books now," Carter said.

(c)2014 the Chicago Tribune

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