Two deputies of embattled Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, including the ethics officer who wrote a memo announcing Foxx had recused herself from the Jussie Smollett prosecution, will leave the office in coming weeks, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.
Both April Perry, whom Foxx appointed two years ago as the first chief ethics officer, and Mark Rotert, a veteran prosecutor and civil attorney who revamped the process the office used to review wrongful conviction claims, will leave Foxx’s staff on May 3, according to letters obtained through a public records request.
Perry submitted her resignation Wednesday, and an email sent to staff states she is taking a job as general counsel for a tech start-up. Rotert filed a resignation letter on March 27, coincidentally, the day before the office dropped 16 counts of disorderly conduct charged against the “Empire” actor, Rotert told The Chicago Sun-Times.
“(Smollett’s case) had absolutely zero percent to do with my decision,” Rotert said in a phone interview.
Perry, who is Rotert’s supervisor, did not respond to requests for comment. On Thursday evening, Foxx sent a notice to staff about a May 1 farewell party for Rotert and Perry, lauding both for their work with the office.
Perry, a former federal prosecutor, announced in a memo to the office in February that Foxx would be recusing herself from decision-making in the Smollett case. Her name appears on numerous emails — most of them redacted — exchanged among Foxx’s top staff both before Smollett was charged and in the days following the abrupt end of the case, when all charges were dropped against the actor accused of staging a hate crime attack on himself.
Rotert said he had no involvement with the case until recently when he acted as a liaison between Foxx and Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard to arrange for an independent review of how the Smollett case was handled.
“That was precisely because I had had no involvement with the case,” Rotert said.
The departures mark an almost complete turnover among the top ranks of Foxx’s staff since she took the reins in 2016, when she stocked most senior positions with veteran lawyers recruited from outside the office. Foxx touted the revamped conviction integrity unit and ethics office positions as key roles in her plans to reform the office.
Rotert presided over a sea change in how the office dealt with wrongful conviction claims, with the state’s attorney’s office last year agreeing to the first-ever “mass exoneration” in Cook County, wiping out criminal convictions for 15 defendants whose cases were tainted by the involvement of Chicago Police officers under the command of former Sgt. Ronald Watts. Some 70 people had convictions vacated or prosecutions abandoned by the office after CIU reviews exposed flaws in the cases.
After two years in the role, Rotert said his decision to leave this spring coincided with the date of a planned international trip with his wife and the start of fishing season.
“I really felt I was in a unique position because I had been a prosecutor and I had worked in defense … and at the end of the day, when it was all said and done, I was going to go fishing,” Rotert said. “I am just incredibly proud of the work we did. I think we have a (unit) that really should be a national model.”
Josh Tepfer, a lawyer who represented dozens of defendants seeking to overturn their Watts-tainted convictions, lauded Rotert for his fairness and “dedication to finding the truth.” Tepfer, who works for the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, acknowledged the unorthodox ending to Smollett’s criminal case has opened Foxx and her office to criticism.
“There are people who are saying lately that the office caters to the rich and the powerful, and to people with clout,” Tepfer said. “But I can tell you that my clients have no money, no power and no clout at all, and those cases were vacated because people in the office knew it was the right thing to do.”
In a statement Thursday night, Foxx praised both of her top deputies.
“I am profoundly grateful for Mark’s work to make the Cook County Conviction Integrity Unit a national model. … The people of Cook County have been well served by his leadership and he has well earned his retirement.
“I am also grateful for April Perry’s tenure as the first ever Chief Ethics Officer for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. … I wish her well in her new endeavors.”