Smollett case focus of latest mayoral debate

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Mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot, left, and Toni Preckwinkle, right. File Photos. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times)

Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday demanded a “fulsome explanation” for why felony disorderly conduct charges for staging a hate crime were dropped against Jussie Smollett, arguing that the “stunningly-fast turnaround” raises “serious questions.”

During and after a mayoral debate at Fox32 Chicago, Lightfoot noted precious police resources were diverted to investigate and build what appeared to be an airtight case against the “Empire” actor. Smollett was accused of obstructing justice and master-minding a hoax and, Lightfoot said, it is “demoralizing to police” to see the state’s attorney’s office let Smollett walk away after forfeiting his $10,000 bond.

Lightfoot said she is equally concerned about State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s extraordinary decision toseal the file in the Smollett case and about potential liability for beleaguered Chicago taxpayers.

“What were the exact terms of the deal? Is Jussie Smollett gonna be able to come back and sue the city of Chicago where the state’s attorney has immunity? Those are issues that, as a … mayoral candidate, I have great concern about. … We need to know those answers,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot says she has “100 percent confidence” in Foxx, who has recused herself from the case. But she argued that Foxx’s first deputy, Joe Magats, “has to come forward and provide a much more fulsome explanation so that people have confidence that there isn’t anything untoward that happened. … If there’s an issue with the evidence, put it out there and talk about it.”

Lightfoot branded as “troubling” the state’s attorney’s explanation that Smollett was, in fact, responsible for perpetrating a hate crime hoax, but that the priority of the office is to prosecute violent crime.

“The Chicago Police Department worked tirelessly over many weeks to take seriously the hate crime, as they should. Then, as the evidence unfolded, to look at what they believe was a hoax that was manufactured for some purpose,” Lightfoot said.

“Somebody who actually does that — if that’s a reality — there needs to be justice. [To do otherwise is] demoralizing to the men and women of the Chicago Police Department to get to the bottom of what happened that night.”

Toni Preckwinkle was asked the same questions about Foxx, her political protege, on a day when the news was dominated by the stunning development in the Smollett case.

Preckwinkle was defensive — and avoided most of the questions about Foxx — just as she was when Foxx was harshly criticized for attempting to persuade Police Supt. Eddie Johnson to transfer the investigation of Smollett’s claim about being the target of a hate crime from CPD to the FBI.

It happened after an influential supporter of the “Empire” actor had reached out to Foxx personally: Tina Tchen, a Chicago attorney and former chief of staff for former first lady Michelle Obama.

Asked point-blank whether Foxx “dropped the ball” on the Smollett case, Preckwinkle said: “I just learned about this a couple hours ago. I don’t, frankly, know the particulars. And I’m not a lawyer and I’m not the state’s attorney. So, I look forward to the explanation from the state’s attorney about why this decision was made.”

Tuesday’s debate was the latest stop in the oratorical endurance contest otherwise known as the runoff race for mayor of Chicago.

The two women vying to become Chicago’s first African-American female mayor are facing off every day this week as they head to the finish line on Tuesday.

Several times, Preckwinkle told moderator Mike Flannery and Lightfoot, “Let me finish.” Lightfoot responded by smiling confidently and shaking her head.

For Preckwinkle, it was yet another opportunity to try and distance herself from the racially incendiary rhetoric used by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush at a raucous rally for Preckwinkle last Saturday at the Harold Washington Cultural Center.

Until Tuesday, Preckwinkle had refused to condemn Rush — or even acknowledge that she disagreed with him — for saying “the blood of the next young black man or woman who is killed by police” would be on the hands of Lightfoot voters if the former Police Board president is elected.

It was an attempt by Rush to describe Lightfoot as a protector of police officers who use excessive force.

On Tuesday, Preckwinkle finally tried to distance herself from Rush’s remarks — at least a little.

“I might have put it differently. … It’s not the language I would use,” Preckwinkle said.

But, she argued, “what is really dismissive” is focusing only on the “rhetoric” Rush used and ignoring the “substance” of his argument about a criminal justice system that has unfairly targeted minorities.

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