SPRINGFIELD--The Illinois House opened a special investigation today into a Chicago Democrat charged in federal court with taking a cash bribe.
But Rep. Derrick Smith, a West Side Democrat, didn't show up.
Smith faces the first House probe since then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat now in prison, was investigated and eventually impeached following his December 2008 corruption arrest. The House also investigated a Supreme Court justice, James Heiple, in the 1990s. He remained on the bench.
Smith faces the potential of censure, reprimand or expulsion under the House procedures, which started with the investigative panel that convened today and could eventually bring his case before the full House.
The House last held a similar hearing involving a lawmaker in the 1970s, officials said. But Rep. Dennis Reboletti, R-Elmhurst, said it is the first time a lawmaker came before his colleagues on allegations of using his office to leverage a bribe.
Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, the investigative committee's chair, contended the allegations against Smith represented a "gross breach of public trust" but he is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.
The trigger for the legislative investigation was the federal bribery charges, and the committee plans to ask the U.S. Atttorney's Office in Chicago whether they can provide any information behind the criminal complaint.
The next committee meeting is April 9.
Republicans brought the petition last week that triggered the bipartisan hearing of the Special Investigative Committee.
Smith was charged one week before the March 20 primary with taking a $7,000 cash bribe in a federal sting. Prosecutors said Smith agreed to the bribe in return for writing a favorable letter to state officials in support of a grant for a day-care center. Federal authorities used an undercover informant as part of the sting and there was no actual grant request.
Smith won the primary with 77 percent of the vote. That victory came after U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., and several other West Side Democrats encouraged voters to support Smith in the primary. They did not want the Democratic nomination to go to Tom Swiss, a former ranking official with the Cook County Republican Party.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, had pumped $60,000 into Smith's election before the arrest. He has since declined comment on whether Smith should step down, citing his leadership position over the House investigation.
Leading Democrats that have now called for Smith to step down since his election have included Gov. Pat Quinn, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Jesse White.
The hope of many Democrats is that Smith can be talked into stepping down from his seat in the House and giving up the nomination, moves that would allow Democratic ward bosses to pick a successor and a candidate for the November general election.
Smith has kept a low profile and has not returned to the House floor for legislative business since the charges.
David Ellis, serving as the counsel of the committee, testified he spoke to Smith by telephone and emailed him to make sure he was informed of the date and time of the hearing. Ellis served as the lead attorney for the House in the Blagojevich case.