Judge gets the maximum (Vrdolyak implicated)


July 26, 2002


A disgraced former Cook County judge got the maximum prison sentence of two years and three months in federal prison for a financial fraud conviction Thursday.

Though the conviction covered only financial fraud, prosecutors and even the judge in the case hinted there might be more to come as the investigation continues into whether George J.W. Smith paid a $30,000 bribe to get his seat on the bench.

“Though this case concludes here today, there is a certain pregnancy about this matter that will not come to an end today,” U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle said.

Prosecutors said the investigation continues into the unnamed “go-between” who might have split the $30,000 with the “sitting judge” who appointed Smith.

Smith initially was appointed by State Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman on a recommendation from former Ald. Edward Vrdolyak (10th). Freeman has denied receiving any money for the appointment, and Vrdolyak has declined comment.

The FBI pulled the files on 100 Cook County judges appointed in the past 10 years and interviewed all three state supreme court justices from Cook County–Freeman, Mary Ann McMorrow and the late Michael Bilandic– about the process.

“The investigation continues,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Dean Polales said.

Smith’s lawyers told Norgle Thursday that Smith might be called before the grand jury.

“I heard it costs $30,000 to buy a judgeship in Cook County, but I didn’t do it,” Polales said Smith told FBI agents when they first confronted him.

Smith told agents the $20,000 he illegally withdrew in amounts small enough to evade federal detection was for concrete work on his house.

The agents visited the concrete worker Smith had referred them to 45 minutes after talking to Smith.

“As soon as they pulled up, Mr. Smith came out,” Polales said. “He had instantly gone . . . to secure corroboration for the false stories.”

Polales said four times Thursday that the $20,000 was “to pay a third party to influence a sitting judge to appoint him to the bench of the Circuit Court of Cook County.”

Polales said Smith persuaded his then-wife to go along with the scheme “to conceal the fact that a payment was split between a go-between and the sitting judge.”

Federal officials only learned of the scheme when the ex-wife was called in by the IRS to explain a discrepancy on the couple’s tax form.

Norgle said he was not satisfied with Smith’s limited answers to why he withdrew the money.

“He concedes the obvious and admits the obvious and stops short when the chips are down, so to speak, about what he did and why he did it and his real objectives,” Norgle said.

The case was delayed several times in the past two years because of Smith’s health problems, including heart surgery and an incident in which he blacked out at his home.

Polales asked why, if Smith’s health was so bad, did the U.S. Army reservist ask in November to be sent to Japan or Korea.

“What must he have been thinking at the time?” Polales asked.

“It’s pretty obvious, judge: ‘How in the heck can I get out of this case?’ ” Polales said.

Smith’s attorney Thomas Breen said Smith’s request was an attack of patriotism after Sept. 11.

“His act of volunteering despite his health problems . . . is a single patriotic act on his part,” Breen said.

Smith’s other attorney, Marc Martin, conceded, “I think it’s fair to say Mr. Smith has an alcohol problem. He blacked out at 3 in the morning. Your honor is certainly no dummy. You can infer what’s happening.”

Smith will receive treatment for his alcoholism while in custody.

Norgle lost his temper with Smith’s attorneys, then with Smith, at one point Thursday.

Breen said Smith accepted responsibility for his actions. As evidence, he produced a $9,722 check Smith had signed to pay a debt to his sister-in-law, Kathy Smith, and his late brother’s children. Prosecutors said Smith swindled the money from his brother’s family by pretending to be the executor of his brother’s estate.

“In the parade of political officials that engage in corrupt conduct, he brought it to new heights . . . to his own kin,” Polales said.

Referring to the check, Norgle asked Martin, “What is your purpose in bringing this into court at this late stage, saying we don’t know who this should be made out to? Is this to add insult to injury?”

Prosecutors asked that the check be made out to Kathy Smith with instructions that she share it with her husband’s other heirs.

Norgle asked Smith what he had done with his guns, because the law requires him to surrender them.

Not satisfied with Smith’s first answers, Norgle told him he would arrest him on the spot unless he gave a satisfactory answer. Smith convinced Norgle he had gotten rid of all 26 guns.