In Firing Top Cop, City Loses Leverage To Force Him To Answer Questions
Employees of the city of Chicago have a strong incentive to cooperate with investigations by the city’s inspector general: If they don’t cooperate, they can be fired.
Now that Mayor Lori Lightfoot has dismissed Eddie Johnson, it could be much harder for city investigators to convince the former police superintendent to sit down and talk with them about what happened the night he was found asleep behind the wheel of a running vehicle after an evening of drinking.
Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s office says it can still compel Johnson to be interviewed. But the former top cop’s attorney says he’s not so sure.
Ferguson’s office is investigating how Johnson ended up dozing off in the car around 12:30 a.m. Oct. 17 — and how the Police Department handled the situation, including a decision to allow the top cop to drive himself home without a sobriety test.
Johnson’s attorney Tom Needham said Ferguson’s staff tried to arrange a time to interview Johnson last month but scheduling difficulties prevented it.
Needham said Johnson’s departure might erase Ferguson’s power to require the ex-superintendent to answer questions from IG investigators.
“The law is not clear about their ability to compel a former employee,” Needham said.
But the IG’s office says it could still order Johnson to sit down with investigators and, if necessary, get the order enforced by a Cook County judge. And the office has at least one recent precedent for doing just that.
The precedent stems from a 2016 investigation that led Ferguson to recommend the dismissal of 11 officers who allegedly covered up for Jason Van Dyke, the patrol officer who shot teenager Laquan McDonald.
A 12th subject of that investigation was Anthony Wojcik, a lieutenant in the Bureau of Detectives, who approved CPD’s conclusion that the shooting was justified.
As Ferguson’s office was arranging interviews with CPD members in the probe, Wojcik resigned.
The IG’s office, still wanting to interview the former lieutenant, mailed a subpoena.
But Wojcik’s lawyer, Darren O’Brien, claimed the IG’s subpoena power did not extend to former city employees.
The city took the issue to court and, in 2017, a Cook County judge ruled the subpoena had to be enforced.
But the city’s legal victory never resulted in additional information for investigators. A few weeks after the court ruling, a Wojcik attorney told the IG he would not appear for an interview with the investigators and would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Interviewed by WBEZ, O’Brien said Wojcik’s resignation had nothing to do with investigations by Ferguson’s office. O’Brien later denied characterizations by Cook County prosecutors that Wojcik was a “co-conspirator” in the alleged cover-up for Van Dyke.
In the Johnson case, a spokeswoman for Ferguson’s office said she could not comment on whether the IG planned to keep pressing for the interview or on the steps the office would take if the former top cop were not willing to sit down.
“There is a potential for a subpoena but I don't know that it will rise to that level,” the spokeswoman, Natalie Kuriata, said.
Johnson, dismissed just weeks before his scheduled retirement, issued a statement Tuesday that admitted “a poor decision” and “a lapse of judgement” but added that he “did not intentionally mislead or deceive the mayor or the people of Chicago.”
Needham, his attorney, did not answer questions on whether the former superintendent is still willing to be interviewed by IG investigators.
Correction: An earlier version of the photo caption in this story misstated the date of Johnson's speech. It was Jan. 8, 2019.