The deal allegedly went down a few days before the 2012 primary on a quiet street in the Bucktown neighborhood, far from state Rep. Derrick Smith’s stronghold on Chicago’s rough-and-tumble West Side.
Smith, a freshman legislator trying to win his first election after being appointed a year earlier, watched as his trusted campaign soldier pulled up in the dusty yellow school bus he’d been using to crisscross Smith’s sprawling district, doing grunt work like planting lawn signs and distributing fliers.
The worker – a felon named Pete who was secretly wearing a wire for the FBI – got into Smith’s car at Cortland Street and Wolcott Avenue carrying a white envelope. There, in the shadow of Drummond Elementary School, Pete removed stacks of crisp $100 bills that had been paper clipped together and started counting.
“One, two, three, four, five. Damn, stuck together. Six, seven,” Pete said as the two shared a chuckle.
In all, he handed over $7,000 cash – money Smith allegedly thought was a kickback from a day care operator for writing her a letter of support for a $50,000 state grant. As Pete drove off, he yelled to his friend from the bus window.
“Didn't even say thank you! Look at you,” Pete said, laughing. “Huh? Oh, did ya? Alright.”
The crucial conversation was played for jurors Tuesday in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman, where Smith is on trial on charges of bribery and extortion. The center was real, but the interest in a grant was a ruse set up by the FBI.
The clandestine Bucktown meeting played out three days before Smith’s dramatic arrest and was the culmination of months of undercover work by Pete, a longtime police and FBI informant whose full name has not been revealed in court. Prosecutors have now played more than a dozen secretly recorded phone calls and face-to-face conversations in which Pete discussed the daycare deal with Smith and hounded him to get it done.
In the conversations, Pete accused the seemingly frazzled legislator of dragging his feet and asked repeatedly how he wanted to receive his kickback. After a campaign contribution was ruled out as too obvious, Pete asked whether a cashier’s check would suffice.
“No, I don’t want no trace of it,” Smith told Pete in one conversation about a week before the money was paid.
“Cash?” Pete replied.
“Yeah,” said Smith.
Prosecutors allege Smith had agreed to pay Pete $2,000 of the bribe money for his work on the campaign. But despite having spent weeks complaining that he was broke, Pete balked when Smith offered to pay him while the two were counting the cash in the car.
“I’ll holler at you later man,” Pete said. “I just want you to know I ain't playin' no games with you seriously.”
In his second day on the stand, FBI Special Agent Bryan Butler testified that soon after Smith was arrested, he admitted taking the bribe and offered to hand over what remained as long as agents kept things low key. At Smith’s request, two African-American agents accompanied him back to his West Side home and recovered about $2,500 of the kickback money stashed in a cedar chest under his bed, Butler testified.
On cross-examination Tuesday, Smith’s attorney, Victor Henderson, hammered away at the FBI’s handling of their informant, who has worked off and on with Chicago police and the FBI going back two decades despite his felony record. Pete was paid thousands for his work on the Smith case and was also given other perks like housing assistance and transportation money, Butler testified.
Butler also acknowledged that Pete didn’t always play by the rules. He used up to five different cell phones during the investigation despite the request by agents that he use only one. Pete also met with Smith without telling agents and many conversations went unrecorded, Butler said.
Besides capturing the alleged bribe in progress, the conversations that jurors have heard offer a glimpse into Smith’s campaign. In several calls, Smith expressed disappointment and mistrust of other campaign workers and worried about the correct strategy against his opponent, Tom Swiss, whom Smith described as “white and Republican.”
But by March, Smith seemed optimistic that his campaign had gained traction and he would prevail. But in other calls, he seemed frustrated over Pete’s continued push for the letter of support even though he hadn’t given Smith the details about the project.
“This stuff is serious,” Smith said in another conversation.
Later, Smith was given a draft letter that purportedly was from the day care operator but had actually been written by the FBI. Smith balked at the lack of detail in the draft and sent it back to Pete asking for it to be fleshed out. After a second try, the FBI got it right – Smith’s office sent an email back to the day care saying his signature would be on it soon.
“Well done!” the email said.