Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, hasn’t even been sworn in yet, and she already has a top priority: figuring out exactly what is going on in Cook County Prosecutor Kim Foxx’s office.
Lightfoot, who won Chicago’s mayoral election by a near-50 point margin on Tuesday, is the city’s first black female (and first openly gay) mayor. She campaigned largely as an outsider to the Chicago machine. Lightfoot is, herself, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, who served at the head of Chicago’s Police Board and Police Accountability Board after leaving legal practice for public service.
Foxx and others had likely hoped the change in leadership, from outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel to incoming mayor Lightfoot, might take some of the pressure off the prosecutor’s office, which has been under a microscope since dropping 17 charges leveled against “Empire” star Jussie Smollett for allegedly faking a hate crime back in January.
No such luck.
In an interview with MSNBC Wednesday, Lightfoot pledged to get to the bottom of the Smollett case, and suggested that Smollett needs to be “held accountable.”
“The State’s Attorney’s office here which made the decision unilaterally to drop the charges has to give a much more fulsome explanation,” Lightfoot said, according to The Wrap.
“We cannot create the perception that if you’re rich or famous or both that you got one set of justice and for everybody else, it’s something much harsher. That won’t do, and we need to make sure that we have a criminal justice system that has integrity,” she continued. “The state’s attorney’s office has to provide more information about the rationale for the decision to drop the charges.”
When asked about the evidence for prosecuting Smollett, and whether she believed Smollett was innocent of the charges, which came from both the prosecutor’s office and a grand jury, Lightfoot was non-committal.
“I saw … a very compelling case,” she said, “with videotapes, witness statements, and other information that looked like he had staged a hoax. And if that happens, he’s got to be held accountable.”
Lightfoot’s words echo those of current mayor Rahm Emanuel, who called Foxx’s office’s actions in dropping the case against Smollett a “whitewash of justice.” Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson have repeatedly decried the decision, and the Chicago Department of Law has issued a $130,000 bill to Smollett for restitution to pay for police overtime hours racked up investigating Smollett’s “hate crime.”
Smollett has so far, through his attorneys, refused to pay.
Lightfoot, of course, has no reason to stand behind Foxx. Lightfoot’s opponent in the recent mayor race was Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle, a friend and mentor to Foxx, who supported Foxx’s campaign for State’s Attorney (Foxx was Preckwinkle’s chief of staff during Preckwinkle’s first years leading Cook County). Foxx is far more closely aligned with the existing Democratic “machine” in Chicago, and Lightfoot clearly wants to prove she’s an independent mayor.
The situation does not bode well for Foxx. In addition to Lightfoot’s lack of confidence, police chiefs from nearly every jurisdiction in Cook County signed a letter expressing “no confidence” in the Cook County prosecutor’s office. Foxx’s Smollett decision is just the tip of the iceberg; police are now concerned that the prosecutor’s kinder, gentler treatment of criminals has made Cook County less safe, especially in light of the death of an off-duty Chicago Police officer at the hands of a man who was released from probation despite having a violent past.