By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD — The new General Assembly, sworn-in Wednesday, includes three Chicago Democrats facing criminal charges.
But Illinois political watchers and former lawmakers say the headlines look worse than they are.
Only one of the three, State Rep. Derrick Smith, is facing political corruption charges. State Sen. Donne Trotter is facing charges after police say he brought a gun to O’Hare Airport in his luggage. State Rep. LaShawn Ford is accused of misusing money from a redevelopment loan that was supposed to go to his private business.
David Morrison, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said voters need to draw a line between alleged misconduct in office and alleged misconduct in someone’s private life.
“It’s not as if Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan are being sworn into the new Legislature,” Morrison said. “Two of the three accused lawmakers are facing charges that have nothing to do with their offices.”
Still, Morrison admits it does not look good to have three lawmakers facing felony charges in Springfield.
“It fuels cynicism,” Morrison said. “It gives people who are already skeptical of government another reason to think all (lawmakers) are corrupt.
Former state Sen. Denny Jacobs, a longtime Quad Cities Democrat, says he can’t remember a time when three lawmakers were simultaneously facing charges. But Jacobs said they are only charged at this point.
“I don’t judge anyone,” Jacobs said. “Let (the accused lawmakers) take their shots (in court) just like everyone else.”
Jacobs is quick to add that voters re-elected all three in November, but only Smith was charged before Election Day. Ford was charged at the end of November, and Trotter was charged in early December. Smith was re-elected in November and, despite being expelled from the 97th General Assembly, will be sworn into the 98th Assembly.
Jim Nowlan, a former state representative and current senior fellow at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said the only connection between the three lawmakers and Illinois’ jailed governors is the “ambiance of corruption.”
Nowlan said people outside Illinois will probably make a big deal of the headline in this case.
“It is more of an optics issue,” Nowlan said. “But nevertheless, it continues to damage the reputation of the General Assembly in Illinois.”
The last time the Illinois Legislature had more than one member facing charges was in the late 1970s, when six lawmakers were accused of taking bribes to change weight limits for cement trucks.
Contact Benjamin Yount at [email protected]