Feds deserve to lose the Derrick Smith trial

As I follow the coverage of the ongoing federal corruption trial of state Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago, one word keeps coming to mind:


With all the venal, ethically greasy pols and bureaucrats slithering through our state and local halls of power, the feds chose to target this mope? A freshman legislator, one of the smaller fish in the murky pond that is Illinois politics, who had to be badgered relentlessly until allegedly accepting a bribe?

Let's review, using excerpts from reports from the trial by the Tribune's Jason Meisner:

In 2011, (an) informant told his FBI handler that he thought he could make a bribery case against Smith. A plan was devised to fool Smith into thinking a day care operator was willing to pay a cash bribe in return for Smith's letter supporting her bid for a lucrative state grant.

Informants don't have to be choirboys, but why would the FBI have taken the word of this particular guy?

(The unnamed informant) has a criminal record that stretches back nearly 40 years, including burglary and drug convictions and arrests for everything from theft to weapons charges ... In 1995, agents temporarily dropped him as a confidential source after he was arrested for stealing bricks at the demolition site of the old Chicago Stadium.

The informant also broke the rules during the time he was dangling bait in front of Smith, according to a prosecution witness.

(The informant) used up to five different cellphones during the investigation despite the request by agents that he use only one. (He) also met with Smith without telling agents and many conversations went unrecorded.

And those conversations that he did record, what did they show?

In the conversations, (the informant) accused the seemingly frazzled legislator of dragging his feet and asked repeatedly how he wanted to receive his kickback ... (Smith) seemed frustrated over (the informant's) continued push for the letter of support.

A month before the 2012 primary ... (the informant) was needling Smith for dragging his feet on the deal even as the campaign struggled financially and employees were going unpaid, according to a secret recording of the meeting.

"Man, you better come on. You f---ing around," said (the informant).

We're left only to wonder what remonstrations, deflections and other fooling around from the reluctant Smith were in those unrecorded conversations.

And yes, of course, ultimately, according the evidence presented at trial, Smith did stop fooling around and accepted an envelope containing $7,000 in cash — or "cheddar" as he memorably called it – in exchange for signing a letter backing a nonexistent state grant for the day-care center.

Shame on him for not resisting temptation. Shame on him for not having the integrity to refuse an offer, no matter how earnestly and repeatedly made, to betray his oath of office and cash in on what little power he had.

We hope for better from our elected officials. Even as we watch with dismay as all of them — every last one — accept heaping mounds, wheels and wedges of perfectly legal campaign "cheddar" from special interests hoping for legislative support.

Derrick Smith did not display the strength of character and moral resolve we'd like to see in lawmakers. But he also did not display the proactively corrupt nature of those who are the true cancer on the body politic.

Whether or not the government's case against Smith meets the legal standard for entrapment — inducing a person to commit a crime he otherwise would not have committed — is a question for the courts. But it definitely meets the everyday standard for overkill.






Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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