"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
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
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 day care. Federal investigators caught the transaction on
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
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"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
"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
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
"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 he noted:
"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
Statehouse News; By JAYETTE BOLINSKI]