Smollett case at the forefront in Cook County state's attorney races
Nearly a year after Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx dismissed with little explanation the disorderly conduct charges against former "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett, who police say staged a racist and homophobic attack and lied about it, the case remains a hot topic in advance of the March 17 primary.
Both Foxx's Democratic primary challengers and Republicans seeking to replace her have voiced disapproval over the handling of the case, which remains under investigation by a special prosecutor, former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb.
Foxx defended her actions during a meeting with the Daily Herald Editorial Board. Appearing with her were her Democratic opponents -- attorney Bill Conway, attorney and former Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna More. At the same time, Foxx acknowledged her office "should have been more transparent about its review and handling" of Smollett's case.
"I own that we did not meet our own level of transparency that we should have had in this case," said Foxx, who would not comment further, saying it was inappropriate to do so while the case remains under review.
Conway criticized Foxx for the dismissal of charges he called "the Jussie Smollett special," which he said was not offered to a client of his, a 22-year-old Hoffman Estates woman who also was charged with making a false police report.
Smollett ended up forfeiting his $10,000 bond and completing a community service assignment in exchange for the dropped charges.
"The only difference between them: He is a politically connected celebrity and my client is an hourly wage earner," Conway said.
Foxx accused Conway of seeking out Clark "so that he could use (her) in a campaign ad."
"That is wildly false," said Conway, who has released an ad with Clark in it but said he read her story and offered his legal services because he thought she was being treated unfairly.
"She was very happy to tell her story to everybody about the unequal treatment she got," he said of the ad.
More said there should have been more answers in the Smollett case.
"When you run on a platform of transparency you better deliver," she said.
"All of a sudden we were being stonewalled with our questions and we had to appoint a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of this."
Not pursuing charges in the case creates a sense of lawlessness that is unacceptable, More said, adding, "We're not holding people accountable."
Fioretti decried the "quietness" he said surrounded the case.
"If it wasn't for reporters in the courthouse, nobody would have known about this until days or weeks later," he said.
He focused on Foxx's saying she had recused herself from the case and handed it over to another attorney in her office.
"If you're going to recuse yourself, you're out of it and so is the whole office," said Fioretti, who criticized Foxx for reportedly accepting a call from a relative of Smollet in the initial stages of the case.
Republican candidates, including former Cook County Judge Patrick O'Brien and former prosecutor Christopher Pfannkuche, also weighed in on the case. They will compete in the primary for the chance to run against the Democratic victor in November.
Pfannkuche said Foxx's lack of experience caused her to mishandle the case and damage the office's reputation. Calling her actions a "national disgrace," he suggested the fallout could damage legitimate victims of a hate crime, who he said "may not come forward for fear of being labeled the next Jussie Smollett."
O'Brien criticized what he called Foxx's lack of judgment, saying her response "shows a lack of integrity you can never recover from."
People often question charging decisions, he said. A chief prosecutor can withstand those queries if he or she demonstrates the decision "was based on the facts in evidence," he said.
"Once you've shown you lack integrity, every decision you make that is questionable becomes a decision the community cannot respect."