Ex-Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli ‘misused confidential information,’ inspector general finds

Interim Cook County Inspector General Steven Cyranoski found that she improperly gave identifying information on juvenile clients to a nonprofit where she later took a job.

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Former Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli.

Former Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times file

Former Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli “misused confidential information” by releasing names and information about children her office defended, the Cook County inspector general’s office has found.

Campanelli, who sought but didn’t win reappointment in 2021, made what interim Cook County Inspector General Steven E. Cyranoski found were unauthorized and possibly illegal disclosures to the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, a nonprofit legal services organization where she is now vice president of restorative justice.

According to a six-page summary in Cyranoski’s latest quarterly report, Campanelli signed an information-sharing agreement with Lawndale Christian Legal Center without required court authorization. The Dec. 3, 2020, agreement, also signed by Cliff Nellis, the organization’s executive director, was part of an effort to enroll as many 40 clients a month of the public defender’s office in a study.

Campanelli was on an advisory board for the agency, which was in jeopardy of losing grant money for the study, the report says.

The inspector general’s office is recommending that her office’s actions be referred to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission “regarding the breaches of confidentiality relating to the agreement to share client information with the Legal Center.”

Stephanie Stewart, an attorney representing Campanelli, said in a written statement that “it was the policy of the public defender’s office to obtain informed consent from every client, including juvenile clients and their parents.”

Stewart, who specializes in representing attorneys facing disciplinary investigations, said, “The policy was reiterated on numerous occasions to all levels of the attorney staff at the public defender’s office.”

Campanelli declined to cooperate with the investigation or to comment on the findings.

Nellis said his organization obtained written consent from everyone who participated in the study.

Nellis said Campanelli later was hired because they share goals: “This was about the vision and the mission of the organization.”

The report doesn’t name Campanelli or Nellis, referring only to the people who signed the memo. Emails and other records confirm that they are the officials in the report, which calls Campanelli “former Official A.”

“Emails reveal that former Official A joined the Legal Center Advisory Board while employed at CCPD and former Official A discussed working for the Legal Center upon leaving CCPD,” the summary says. “In various emails, the Legal Center Executive Director expressed fear of losing funding if the Legal Center did not receive enough referrals from CCPD.”

In one email, Nellis told Campanelli, “I’m concerned … that funding for it will stop if we don’t get our numbers up to 40 per month.”

The inspector general’s office and the public defender’s office, now under Public Defender Sharone Mitchell, declined to release the full report.

The summary says Campanelli released information about young clients her office was defending that included names, birthdates, contact information and pending charges.

The summary cites the Illinois Juvenile Court Act, which calls for confidentiality regarding juvenile records except with a court order or for dissemination to court personnel. No court order was sought, the report says.

Michael Toomin, former presiding judge of the Cook County courts’ juvenile division, told Cyranoski’s office he thinks the information-sharing violated the state law designed to shield juvenile records.

“I would not have agreed to sign it if they had come to me,” Toomin told the investigators.

Neither he nor Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans was aware of the deal, according to the report.

Campanelli, who served one six-year term as public defender, wanted reappointment to a second term, but Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle chose to replace her in the spring of 2021.

After being named to replace her, Mitchell ended the information-sharing agreement with the legal center almost immediately, according to Cyranoski’s report.

Mitchell told the investigators “the Legal Center used the information provided by CCPD to solicit the juveniles for legal services,” the report says. It also says he “acknowledged that the Legal Center’s grant funding is determined by the number of clients to whom it provides legal services.”

Weeks after Mitchell’s appointment, Campanelli went to work for Lawndale Christian Legal Center.

Nellis founded the organization in 2010. In 2018, it hired Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer as vice president of organizational health and management.

Cliff Nellis, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center.

Cliff Nellis, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times file

Since 2020, Lawndale Christian Legal Center has helped run Chicago’s effort to divert juveniles away from being locked up. The city has paid it about $1.7 million under that contract, city records show. The organization is one of several the city has hired for a revamped diversion program.

Last year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed Nellis to the new Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability that led the search for a new police superintendent.

Contributing: David Jackson

Grace Asiegbu reports for Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit journalism organization.

Dan Hinkel and Kelly Garcia report for Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit journalism organization.

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