By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD — History probably would have overlooked Illinois Rep. Frank Comerford’s speech to law students in Chicago, except for one thing — he named names.
“To say that the Illinois Legislature is a great public auction, where special privileges are sold to the highest corporation bidders, is to put the statement mildly,” Comerford, a Cook County Democrat, told a gathering of Illinois College of Law students and faculty on Jan. 27, 1905.
A 30-year-old lawyer and just months into his first term as a legislator, Comerford then detailed the names of lawmakers rumored to be on the take, how much cash changed hands and where the conversations took place.
Days later, facing fellow lawmakers poised to kick him out of the House, Comerford said he believed the students had a right to know how laws were made here, and that bribery was rampant.
“I was lecturing to the student body of a college — not making charges upon the floor of this House or in the newspapers. I reserve the right to my opinion; I believe now, as I did then, that the stories told me are true,” he said.
Word of Comerford’s speech hit newspapers Jan. 31, and that is how the representative from the 2nd District came to be the first and only lawmaker expelled from the state’s House for “besmirching its good name and reputation” — and it took only nine days for them to do so. Notably, nothing happened to the legislators who allegedly accepted the bribes. Lawmakers said Comerford failed to back up his claims.
For all the corruption that has been exposed in the Illinois Capitol since the state was established in 1818 — six governors indicted or sent to prison, the Cement Bribery Trial of the early 1970s, the famous Paul Powell shoe boxes full of cash and the state auditor who embezzled millions — there is little precedent for how the House should investigate allegations against one of its own.
One hundred and seven years after the Comerford case, state lawmakers grappling with what to do about indicted Democratic state Rep. Derrick Smith have found themselves using the framework of Comerford’s 1905 disciplinary proceedings as a guide for investigating Smith in 2012.
But the framework could use some work, experts say.
State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who sat on the House Special Investigating Committee to look into the allegations against Smith this spring, said lawmakers relied on rules and guidelines that were “a little convoluted, at best,” she said.
“I think we could have had for this Special Investigating Committee some clearer guidelines on how the process should unfold,” she said. “The framework could use some work. The rules in some ways were contradictory. There just needs to be clearer direction on time frames and notices — those very simple kinds of things.”
Nekritz, a Democrat from Northbrook, said the committee felt it was important to work within the established framework once it began the Smith investigation, even if some of it was murky.
“It would have felt awkward to me to change the rules in the middle of this process. That would have not felt fair to Rep. Smith to me,” she said. “The rules were the rules under which the process was started.”
Smith, of Chicago, is accused of accepting a $7,000 bribe in exchange for trying to steer a $50,000 state contract to a fictitious daycare. Federal investigators caught the transaction on tape.
The House rules call for a particular procedure leading up to any discipline of a lawmaker, whether it’s expulsion, censure, a reprimand or nothing at all. It starts with at least three lawmakers filing a petition requesting an investigation. A Special Investigative Committee is convened to look into the allegations, and then the probe moves into the hands of a bipartisan Select Committee on Discipline, which determines if the lawmaker should be disciplined. If the committee recommends discipline, two-thirds of the full House must agree.
State Rep. Dennis Reboletti, R-Elmhurst, also sat on the committee to investigate Smith. He said the group looked to various sources for guidance on how to proceed, including the Comerford case and the conviction and impeachment hearings of Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
“We looked at as much precedent as possible and, fortunately, this doesn’t happen very often,” said Reboletti, a former prosecutor. “I don’t think it was as simple as looking at one thing in particular, but also trying to modernize things as thought was appropriate for the Smith situation.”
Reboletti said he anticipates the House rules will be changed in the future to identify the level of misconduct that can trigger an investigation. Theoretically, the way the rules are written, a speeding ticket, a cross word or political ax-grinding could trigger an investigation if at least three representatives request an investigation.
“Just because a representative says something on the House floor or in his or her district, like Comerford did, you don’t want to just base an investigation off of that,” he said. “There has to be a more substantive reason for bringing that course of action.”
Kent Redfield, a political science professor at University of Illinois Springfield and an expert on Illinois government, said the General Assembly historically has dealt with situations like Smith’s on case-by-case basis, which is reflective of the political culture in Illinois.
“We generally tend to treat things as kind of ad hoc — deal with this particular situation, make it go away, as opposed to saying are there systemic issues here that we ought to deal with,” he said.
“My guess is that we are going to deal with this particular situation — that at some point Rep. Smith will be expelled before the end of his term — and then we’ll wait for the next incident to occur and then deal with that.”
Other states and the federal government, though, have set up standing ethics committees for their chambers, written codes of conduct for lawmakers, and established a way for the public to file ethics complaints and see those complaints dealt with publicly.
“The political institutions are in trouble at a time when we’re asking the general public to accept some pretty tough decisions. And all of this would work better, I think, if people had more confidence in government,” Redfield said. “I think that there are things the legislature could do to demonstrate that and try to build that confidence.”
Nekritz declined to comment on whether Illinois should have lawmaker codes of conduct and ethics committees for each chamber, but did say she would like to see the House revisit its rules for discipline eventually.
“I think that we will be looking at this portion of the rules as the new General Assembly is seated next January and try to clean this up,” she said.
Reboletti said things always are subject to review, but noted that, “like anything else, you can legislate and write codes all you want, but there are people who will choose not to follow them. I don’t want to say there already are enough (corruption-fighting tools) on the books, but there is a process to review the procedures and see if something new can be done to try to quell that.”
People always can contact state and federal prosecutors about public corruption, but legislative committees can be hamstrung when it comes to getting information from prosecutors, limiting their effectiveness, said Mike Lawrence, a former statehouse reporter, longtime political observer and a former staff member under Republican Gov. Jim Edgar.
“I don’t know of any meaningful substitute for prosecution of wrongdoing. We have laws against doing what Rep. Smith is accused of doing. We have laws prohibiting the kind of action that Gov. (Rod) Blagojevich was sent to prison for,” Lawrence said.
“Frankly, it’s not an easy answer, but the fact of the matter is the culture of corruption in Illinois will change when citizens get as outraged about dishonesty by public officials as they are about not getting their garbage picked up on time or getting the snow shoveled from their streets in a timely fashion.”
Smith’s case continues to make its way through the federal court system. It is unclear if the House will decide to discipline him prior to the November election. His name remains on the November ballot for his district.
In Comerford’s case, he had the last laugh. Even though he was kicked out of the Illinois House in February 1905, he ran as an independent in a special election to fill his seat, and he won re-election on April 4.
He later went on to become a judge in the Superior Court of Cook County and died in 1929. An Associated Press article about his death referred to him as “the boy orator of the Legislature” for his 1905 allegations.
Jayette Bolinski can be reached at email@example.com.