A special prosecutor in Chicago on Monday released the findings of a months-long investigation into the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office’s handling of the case against actor Jussie Smollett, saying he found “substantial abuses of discretion and operational failures” but nothing to support any criminal charges.
This is the latest chapter in the controversial Smollett saga, which began last January when the then-Empire actor told Chicago police he had been the victim of a hate crime. By March 2019, those allegations had translated into a 16-count grand jury indictment against Smollett for filing false police reports.
Just weeks later, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx abruptly dropped all charges in a move that proved divisive nationally and especially in Chicago, where the mayor and police superintendent slammed it as a “whitewash of justice.” (Smollett, who maintains his innocence, was indicted a second time in Feb. 2020. Prosecution is ongoing and the court has not yet set a date for his trial.)
Special prosecutor Dan Webb said his office was charged last year by a Chicago judge with determining whether Smollett should be further prosecuted, as well as whether any person or office involved in the initial Smollett case had engaged in wrongdoing — an undertaking intended in part to restore public confidence in the criminal justice system.
The office launched its investigation into the state’s attorney’s office and Chicago Police Department last August.
More than 50 interviews, 50 subpoenas, 26,000 documents and troves of text message data and audio recordings later, Webb issued a lengthy public memo on Monday summarizing the main findings “in the interests of justice.”
The Office of the Special Prosecutor, or OSP, reported that one of its main lines of inquiry was whether State’s Attorney Foxx’s sudden decision to dismiss initial charges was “influenced in an improper manner by prominent people who reached out to her to discuss the Initial Smollett Case.”
It said the investigation yielded no evidence that would support any criminal charges against Foxx or anyone working at her office.
It did, however, say that it had identified three “substantial abuses of discretion and failures” in the office’s prosecution and resolution of the case.
The statement noted, among other points, that the dropping of the charges against Smollett didn’t hinge on new evidence and “surprised” or “shocked” lawyers who worked in the state’s attorney’s office criminal division.
The OSP alleged that Foxx’s office “breached its obligations of honesty and transparency” by making false and/or misleading statements to the public regarding Foxx’s recusal from the case, the office’s subsequent dismissal of the case and the extent of Foxx’s communications with Smollett’s sister, Jurnee.
The special prosecutor said one false statement was that the relatively easy terms for dropping the charges — including community service and a monetary penalty — didn’t represent a new or unusual practice for the state’s attorney’s office.
The OSP also said its evidence relating to false and misleading public statements “may rise to the level of a violation of legal ethics by State’s Attorney Foxx and CCSAO lawyers.”
In a statement released Monday, the state’s attorney’s office said it “categorically rejects the OSP’s characterizations of its exercises of prosecutorial discretion and private or public statements as ‘abuses of discretion’ or false statements to the public.”
“While the release does not say so, any implication that statements made by the CCSAO were deliberately inaccurate is untrue,” it wrote.
Foxx’s office added it has already made “a number of changes” to its operations, such as hiring a new ethics officer and clarifying its recusal plan.
In its statement, it responded more favorably to two other conclusions.
The OSP said it did not develop evidence showing Foxx was involved in decision-making on the case after her recusal (though it maintains she was “provided with frequent updates” after that point), nor did it develop evidence of improper influence by any outside parties in the office’s decision making.
Prosecutors also noted they found no evidence to support any criminal charges over alleged leaks to the media by the Chicago Police Department.
Webb’s full 60-page report contains grand jury evidence that cannot be released to the public without a court order. Webb said he will ask Cook County Circuit Court Judge Michael Toomin to authorize the release.
Foxx’s office said it will issue a written response when it receives the final report.