Ex Judge Smith gets 27 months (Vrdolyak implicated in judgeship buying sceme)

Ex-judge gets 27 months in bribery case
U.S. still probing whether he paid for seat on bench

By Matt O’Connor
Tribune staff reporter
Published July 26, 2002

A former Cook County judge was sentenced Thursday to the maximum 27 months in prison for allegedly buying his way onto the bench with a bribe of $30,000 to another judge.

Lawyers for Circuit Judge George J.W. Smith said they expect prosecutors to force Smith to testify for the grand jury investigating Smith’s appointment to the bench before he surrenders to prison in two months.

Sources have said Smith was appointed to the Circuit Court by Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman, who acknowledged being questioned by the FBI when the allegations first surfaced publicly in 2000. Freeman has denied he was a target of the probe.

The FBI has been looking into whether Smith paid the $30,000 to a well-known former politician who is a close friend of Freeman’s to arrange for Smith’s appointment, sources have said.

Smith pleaded guilty in March to evading federal cash-reporting requirements but has never said whether he used the $30,000 to buy his judgeship.

The investigation opened in 1998 after Smith’s ex-wife, Carlotta Martini, made the allegation of buying a judgeship during their divorce case.

Lawyers for Smith tried to block U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle Sr. from considering the ex-wife’s allegations, arguing that the couple’s private conversations while married were confidential by law.

But Norgle rejected that argument, found the ex-wife’s allegations reliable and concluded that Smith, while he was a Cook County assistant state’s attorney, had indeed conspired to pay a bribe to become a judge.

“There is no excuse for what George J.W. Smith did here,” Norgle said. The case “cries out for the maximum punishment,” the judge said.

At the request of Smith’s lawyers, Norgle asked prison officials to determine whether Smith needs treatment for alcoholism.

In seeking the stiffest prison term possible under federal sentencing laws, Assistant U.S. Atty. Dean Polales saved his harshest comments for Smith’s admitted fraud of his deceased brother Garry’s wife and children of nearly $10,000 from a lawsuit settlement.

A bitter letter written by the brother’s widow, Kathy S. Smith–read aloud in court–said her family was left penniless and debt-ridden after her husband’s death.

“George was well aware that I was not employed at the time Garry died and I was living hand to mouth, sometimes living for weeks on cereal and popcorn in order to maintain my home and continue to pay off Garry’s hospital bills and debt,” the widow wrote.

“George chose to cheat his own family in order to benefit himself,” she continued. “George is nothing more now than an embarrassment to his family and to the memory of my husband, Garry.”

Polales also accused Smith, long active in the Army Reserves, of seeking reinstatement to active duty last November to avoid his legal responsibilities.

But Smith’s lawyers, Thomas Breen and Marc Martin, contended that despite serious heart problems, Smith offered to volunteer as “a patriotic act” in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Smith, 56, of Elmwood Park declined to make any comment in court or as he left the Dirksen Federal Building.

Smith has a long background in the military and law enforcement. He was a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War and worked as a Chicago police officer while attending law school at night. He rose to supervisory posts during 15 years with the state’s attorney’s office and the Illinois attorney general.

Smith, who resigned from the bench on the day he pleaded guilty, is now driving a truck 12 hours a day, Breen said.

Prosecutors Polales and John Kocoras objected to giving Smith any leniency in spite of his guilty plea, arguing that Smith, while a sitting judge, tried to obstruct the federal investigation by lying to the FBI.

Polales alleged that in 1995 Smith enlisted the help of his then-wife to come up with $30,000 to buy the judgeship. He took an early withdrawal of $20,000 from his county pension, claiming he planned to roll over the money to keep the Internal Revenue Service from learning of the transaction.

Over three successive days, he then withdrew the $20,000, always in increments under $10,000 so that the bank wouldn’t legally be required to notify federal authorities, Smith admitted in pleading guilty.

The ex-wife said she contributed the additional $10,000 that went to pay for the judgeship.

But two years ago, Polales said, Smith lied to two FBI agents, saying that he had spent the $30,000 on concrete work at his home.

After conferring with higher-ups, the agents quickly went to question the concrete contractor, only to find Smith leaving the business as they pulled up. Not surprisingly, Polales said, the contractor corroborated Smith’s account.

Investigators discovered a 1994 appraisal of Smith’s home that indicated the concrete work had been done in 1993, two years before Smith claimed, and for far less than $30,000, Polales said.

Polales said the ex-wife came forward after Smith, as part of the divorce fight, tried to stick her with IRS tax problems.

Norgle gave Smith until Sept. 30 to surrender to federal prison, but then he threatened to jail the ex-judge immediately until he was satisfied that the convicted felon had disposed of 26 weapons he once owned.