Mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle defended her political protégé on Tuesday amid allegations that State’s Attorney Kim Foxx acted inappropriately when she tried to persuade Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson to transfer the investigation of Jussie Smollett’s claim of being the target of a hate crime to the FBI.
“Kim Foxx was my chief of staff for … a little more than two years. She ran for and was elected state’s attorney. I’m very grateful for the good work that she’s done there,” Preckwinkle told an unrelated news conference on the West Side.
“I think that she makes the decisions that she believes are in the best interests of the office.”
The Fraternal Order of Police has demanded a federal investigation of Foxx’s behavior in the Smollett case.
Foxx’s call to Johnson came after an influential supporter of the “Empire” actor reached out to Foxx personally: Tina Tchen, a Chicago attorney and former chief of staff for former First Lady Michelle Obama, according to emails and text messages provided by Foxx to the Chicago Sun-Times in response to a public records request.
Prekwinkle was asked again whether she believes it was appropriate for Foxx to ask the Chicago Police Department to give up the case and transfer the investigation to the FBI at a time when Smollett was considered the victim of a hate crime, not a suspect in a hoax.
“I have great confidence in state’s attorney Foxx. I believe that she made the right decision in this instance,” Preckwinkle said.
Pressed to explain why she believes that, the county board president said: “I think it was the right decision because it was a decision that she made and she’s in the best position to make it.”
Preckwinkle cut off the conversation when asked who else but someone with clout would have had a pipeline to the state’s attorney to even ask that a case be transferred.
“I’ve said what I have to say about this. Thank you,” she said.
The Sun-Times reported last week that Tchen passed Foxx’s number to a relative of the actor.
The ensuing conversations with the family member were cited by Foxx last month as the reason she recused herself from Smollett’s prosecution as the actor faces disorderly conduct charges for allegedly making a false police report.
Text messages show Tchen contacted Foxx on Feb. 1, three days after Smollett said he was jumped by two men as he walked home from a sandwich shop near his Streeterville home. Tchen texted Foxx to set up an early morning phone call.
“I wanted to give you a call on behalf of Jussie Smollett and family who I know. They have concerns about the investigation,” Tchen wrote in a text sent before 5 a.m., seeking to set up a call with Foxx before Tchen left on an 8 a.m. flight to New York.
A few hours later, Foxx received a text from a relative of Smollett, who said she’d received the number from Tchen.
In an interview with the Sun-Times last week, Foxx said that the family member expressed concerns about leaked information about the investigation — information that media outlets attributed to “police sources.”
“They had no doubt about the quality of the investigation, but believed that the FBI would have a tighter lid on the information,” said Foxx, adding that Johnson initially seemed receptive to the idea of turning the case over to the FBI.
Foxx said she has made similar calls to Johnson in cases involving lower-profile victims.
An email included with the records requested by the Sun-Times shows Foxx’s chief ethics officer sent a message to top staff announcing Foxx had recused herself from the case on Feb. 13 — about a week before Smollett was charged, and the same date as her last text message and calls with Smollett’s relative.
The text messages show Foxx told both Tchen and Smollett’s relative that Foxx had reached out to Johnson personally about handing the investigation off to the FBI.
“Spoke to the superintendent earlier. He is going to make the ask. Trying to figure out logistics. I’ll keep you posted,” Foxx wrote the relative that evening.
“OMG this would be a huge victory,” the relative texted in reply.
In an email message to Tchen sent the same day, Foxx wrote: “Spoke to the Superintendent Johnson. I convinced him to reach out to FBI to ask that they take over the investigation. He is reaching out now and will get to me shortly.”
The FOP, which represents the bulk of the Chicago Police Department’s rank-and-file officers, on Tuesday announced union President Kevin Graham last week sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney’s office asking for an investigation of Foxx’s decision to recuse herself from the case and her exchange with Smollett’s relative.
“Such conduct merits a review by your office. Private attorneys are not allowed to interfere with ongoing police investigations, particularly at the request of private individuals associated with subjects being investigated by the police, in this case, a subject later determined to be the offender, not the victim,” reads an excerpt of the letter posted on the FOP’s blog.
Contributing: Sam Charles, Andy Grimm