Bankole: Smith banks on name outweighing legal woes

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Even with a plea deal from the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office in pocket that saved him from going to prison for up to 10 years and clearly stated that he could not hold public office while on probation, former state Sen. Virgil Smith is seeking the District 2 seat on the Detroit City Council in the upcoming election.

Think about it. Instead of facing charges of felonious assault, felony firearm and domestic violence in a May 2015 incident involving his ex-wife Anistia Thomas, prosecutors agreed to give Smith only 10 months in the Wayne County jail and five years of probation in a plea agreement. In that incident, Smith, 37, was accused of firing 20 shots at his ex’s Mercedes-Benz. Thankfully, no one died in that encounter but Thomas said she suffered great injury including a swollen jaw, busted lip and more than a dozen bruises in the bitter altercation preceding the incident.

If a regular person without a prominent name had been involved in a similar incident, it is likely that individual would have been prosecuted to the full letter of the law and dragged off to a long prison term.

But Smith got a nice deal.

He comes from a well-known Detroit family. His father, Wayne County Circuit Judge Virgil Smith, is a respected member of the local judiciary.

The question now is whether Smith is abusing the privilege that allowed him to escape prison by running for public office? Is this an act of political entitlement or arrogance?

And why raise this concern now? Because Detroit voters have shown time and again a propensity to elect candidates with strong name recognition no matter the circumstances.

“The intention of the plea was for Mr. Smith not to hold public office. His running for office is ultimately for the purpose of being elected to hold office. So his actions certainly betray the spirit and intent of the plea deal,” said Maria Miller, an assistant Wayne County prosecutor and communications director.

That in itself questions why Smith would be running if his plea deal would prevent him from been seated on council should he win.

“If he were elected and sworn into office, that would violate his plea agreement,” Miller explained, adding that no court order prohibits him from holding office because Wayne County Circuit Judge Lawrence Talon struck down that provision. But prosecutors could be compelled to withdraw their plea deal with Smith.

The Michigan Court of Appeals determined that the issue of Smith holding office was moot in part because Smith had already vacated his Senate seat. The issue is now headed to the Michigan Supreme Court where prosecutors want to prove that their deal has legal standing.

“In the event that he should win the primary election on Aug. 8, we would move the court for immediate consideration and try to expedite consideration of the application and ask for a decision prior to the date the ballots are printed,” Miller said.

Smith’s lawyer Godfrey Dillard did not respond to requests for comments on the issue.

Ahead of the legal wrangling that could unfold in court and the resulting public drama if Dillard were to take the issue head on with prosecutors, voters should be asking:

■Is Smith’s dogged pursuit of another public office in the public interest?

■Is it an opportunity for employment?

■Is he out to prove that some voters may be easily forgiven and non-judgmental?

In District 2, Smith will be facing incumbent George Cushingberry and Roy McCalister Jr.

“I think the voters in his district need to ask: Was he a good senator or is he trying to beat the system through gainful employment by running for council? He’s got high name recognition because of a family name that his dad has built up over time,” said pollster Ed Sarpolus.

Smith did serve time in the Wayne County jail not prison. Fair enough.

Still, as his run for council is bound the test the political currency of his name, everyone has to stand on their merit. As Abraham Lincoln said: “You have to do your own growing no matter how tall your grandfather was.”

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.