Jussie Smollett Celebrity Scandal Dominates State’s Attorney Candidate Forum

Cook County Criminal Courthouse
The George Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago is the main criminal courthouse for Cook County. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office handles some 30,000 felony cases a year. The office’s decision last March to drop charges against the Empire star continues to dog her reelection bid. Andrew Gill / WBEZ
Cook County Criminal Courthouse
The George Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago is the main criminal courthouse for Cook County. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office handles some 30,000 felony cases a year. The office’s decision last March to drop charges against the Empire star continues to dog her reelection bid. Andrew Gill / WBEZ

Jussie Smollett Celebrity Scandal Dominates State’s Attorney Candidate Forum

Vying to lead the prosecutor’s office of a county with more than 500 murders last year, the four Democrats on the March ballot for Cook County state’s attorney faced off Monday in a forum that focused largely on how incumbent Kim Foxx handled charges nearly a year ago in a celebrity scandal.

During the one-hour forum, held by the Chicago Tribune editorial board, the journalists focused the first 30 minutes on Jussie Smollett, the Empire actor charged with faking a hate crime, and a decision by Foxx’s office last March to drop 16 grand jury counts against him.

Foxx refused to answer many questions about the scandal, saying she didn’t want to taint an investigation by a well-respected special prosecutor, Dan Webb, who is looking into whether political influence played a role.

“It is my hope that someone of the caliber of Mr. Webb and the team that he has assembled will be able to give that reassurance to the public,” she said, implying the probe will show her office handled the case fairly.

Foxx said her office “could have done a much better job” communicating to the public about the case.

She tried several times Monday to change the topic to her criminal-justice reform efforts and her steps to focus the office’s limited resources on violent crime.

Foxx acknowledged taking “knocks” from some suburban police chiefs who have accused her of failing to prosecute criminals. She has also faced harsh criticism from President Trump, the NRA and the union that represents rank-and-file Chicago police officers.

“Some of those criticisms, quite frankly, have been because we’ve done quite differently than the status quo,” Foxx said, saying the old ways led to things like decades of federal oversight over the county’s massive jail and “almost a billion dollars in police misconduct cases.”

The remainder of the Tribune forum touched on other topics.

Challenger Bill Conway, a former assistant state’s attorney, addressed the $5 million in campaign funding he has received from his father, who founded the Carlyle Group, a large multinational investment firm.

“My dad’s been a great father but I have never worked at the Carlyle Group,” Conway said, later acknowledging he manages “a small chunk of my father’s money” in a company affiliated with Carlyle.

“Certainly, when I’m state’s attorney, I will no longer be doing that,” Conway said.

Also appearing at the Tribune forum was lobbyist and former federal prosecutor Donna More, who ran in 2016 for the office and finished third in the Democratic primary — a race in which Foxx unseated incumbent Anita Alvarez.

More, who has represented cannabis and gambling interests, claimed it would not be necessary to recuse herself if any of her past clients “happen to be on the other side of the case I’m on.”

“No, if somebody breaks the law, we will charge the case,” More said. “If I become state’s attorney, I will treat everybody equally, fairly and equitably.”

The fourth candidate, former Chicago Ald. Bob Fioretti, escaped tough questioning. Fioretti has made several unsuccessful runs for public office since leaving the City Council in 2015.

The Tribune forum took place after Foxx and Conway released new campaign ads.

Foxx’s 30-second spot says she has supported immigrant rights and challenged the NRA.

“We all share in the struggle against poverty and violence,” Foxx says in the ad, adding she “sued Donald Trump on behalf of immigrant families to protect their access to health care and housing.”

Conway released an ad criticizing Foxx for her handling of the Smollett case. The ad features his client Candace Clark, who says she was charged with the same crime as Smollett but her case wasn’t dismissed.

“I’m not famous,” Clark says in the ad. “I didn’t get special treatment from Kim Foxx.”

The primary is March 17. The winner will face the victor of a Republican primary between former Cook County Judge Patrick W. O’Brien and former county prosecutor Christopher Pfannkuche.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1.