State Representatives Derrick Smith (left) and LaShawn Ford
In August, the Illinois House expelled indicted-by-the feds West Side state representative Derrick Smith, 48. Two weeks ago, another West Side state rep, 40-year-old LaShawn Ford, was indicted by the feds. But so far, there has not been much talk of giving him the boot.
Rep. Monique Davis, a House member for 25 years, said Wednesday morning that she has heard nothing yet about a move to expel Ford. “People in leadership, which I am not, will meet and decide what to do,” she told me by telephone. Davis had voted against ousting Smith on the grounds that “some of my constituents believe that a person is innocent until found guilty in a court of law.” She was generous in her praise of Ford, describing him to me as “a dedicated, excellent legislator who truly represents the interests of his district.”
Arrested in March, Smith, who pleaded not guilty and promises he’ll be found innocent at trial, regained his seat when he easily won reelection in November. His trial on a single bribery charge is scheduled for next October. Ford, who pleaded not guilty on Tuesday, faces his next court date on January 11.
After spending many hours looking at these two cases, my guess is that Ford will escape explusion. What’s the difference between the two? Smith, appointed to his seat in 2011, was caught on tape counting out his share of a $7,000 bribe, and—apparently a gentleman—trying to give the promised $2,000 cut to an FBI informant. The state rep’s alleged crime was clearly related to his duties as a lawmaker: taking a bribe from a person he wrongly believed was a West Side daycare owner, in exchange for writing a letter supporting a $50,000 state grant application. On tape, Smith demanded the bribe be delivered in cash as opposed to a cashier’s check because “I don’t want no trace of it.” The sheer stupidity seemed to offend his colleagues.
Ford’s alleged crime (17 counts of bank fraud, some involving false tax returns that showed higher personal and business income so he could up, by $500,000, his ShoreBank line of credit to $1.5 million) is far more complex. Some counts are related to Ford’s real estate business and mostly are not directly related to his public duties. He allegedly told the bank he’d use the money to rehab properties, but instead, the government charges, he used it to pay off credit cards, car loans, and debt to a Hammond casino. The charges, Monique Davis stresses, “appear to have nothing to do with legislative duties.” She also notes that they occurred “some time ago,” between 2005 and 2008. “The bribery count against Rep Smith was in direct relation to his legislative work. Someone asks to you write a letter and you charge them; that violates ethics and the law.”
When I point out to Davis that Ford is also charged with using $167,000 borrowed from the bank to pay some expenses related to his first successful election campaign in 2006, she said, if true, that is a clear violation. “You do have the responsibility to report what you spend, where it came from,” she said. “That could be a tremendous violation.”
In Ford’s favor is a feeling that the indictment is not quite fair, that he’s being singled out while others are given a pass. Ford’s attorney, Thomas Durkin, has asked, why is an “African-American, popular legislator” (he just won reelection to his fourth term) the only person connected to the failed South Side bank being prosecuted? Durkin told reporters, “These are garden variety bank fraud charges that have nothing whatsoever to do with public office.”
On his website biography, Ford, a former CPS elementary social studies teacher, describes himself as “born to an unwed teenage mother in the Cabrini-Green housing projects….never knowing his father…” and ending up graduating from Loyola University.
Derrick Smith’s expulsion was only the second in the history of the Illinois House. (The first occurred 107 years ago.) Will LaShawn Ford’s be the third? Monique Davis warned last summer in explaining her “no” vote, that her colleagues would “live to regret” expelling Smith. She may be right, but then who would ever charge politicians with consistency.
Calls to Representatives Lou Lang and Barbara Flynn Currie, both leaders in the move to expel Smith—as well as to Representative Mary Flowers, who, like Davis, opposed Smith's expulsion—were not returned by post time.
When the vote on Derrick Smith was called, LaShawn Ford, months before his own troubles, voted “present,” which means he didn’t want to take a position. While many members of the House shunned Smith when he returned to work last April after his indictment but before his expulsion, Ford publicly greeted his colleague on the House floor: "I just told him, God bless him. You know, he's got some challenging days ahead of him."
Photography: (Smith) Chicago Tribune; (Ford) lashawnford.com