Published 8:52 PM EDT Mar 27, 2019
CHICAGO — An ex-Michelle Obama aide said Wednesday she had limited involvement in assisting “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett’s family get in touch with the Chicago-area’s top prosecutor last month.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx earlier this month released a series of text messages and emails to and from Tina Tchen, a prominent Chicago attorney and former chief of staff to Michelle Obama, and an unnamed Smollett relative.
The messages were sent to convey the family’s unease with how police were handling their investigation of an alleged attack on the actor at a moment when police were still classifying Smollett as a victim, according to Tchen.
“I know members of the Smollett family based on prior work together,” Tchen said in a statement. “Shortly after Mr. Smollett reported he was attacked, as a family friend, I contacted Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who I also know from prior work together. My sole activity was to put the chief prosecutor in the case in touch with an alleged victim’s family who had concerns about how the investigation was being characterized in public.”
Foxx said she recused herself from the investigation because of her contacts with Tchen and the Smollett family member. The prosecutor wrote to Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson after the contacts to convey that the family wanted the FBI to take over the investigation, according to copies of emails and text released by the State’s Attorney’s Office.
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Tchen’s comments are her first about her involvement in the case and come one day after Foxx’s office abruptly announced they were dropping charges against Smollett, who was charged last month for disorderly conduct for filing a false police report.
The decision to suddenly drop the charges, less than three weeks after Smollett was indicted by grand jury, was met with sharp criticism by police officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The case was being overseen by Foxx’s first deputy, Joseph Magats, after the chief prosecutor’s recusal.
Police and prosecutors say Smollett paid two brothers, Abel and Ola Osundairo, $3,500 to stage an attack on Smollett near his apartment building in Chicago’s swanky Streeterville neighborhood in which he was made to look like the victim of a vicious hate crime.
Smollett hoped to use the incident to raise his profile and salary, according to Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday they would drop the charges against Smollett, who in turn agreed to forfeit the $10,000 bond he put up to secure his release after he was arrested.
Smollett and his attorneys maintain the actor is innocent. Prosecutors, who said the deal should not be seen as an exoneration, described the decision to drop the charges as simply a “just disposition and appropriate resolution” to the case.
Johnson said Foxx and her deputies did not give him or his aides any forewarning of their decision to drop the case.
Foxx told the Chicago Tribune Wednesday that she regretted her contact with the family about the case. She also told the paper she had nothing to do with the decision to drop the case, but defended her deputies’ decision.
“It’s frustrating to me that the reliability of the work of the people of this office has been challenged,” she said. “What happened with Jussie Smollett and having this type of diversion is something we offer to people who do not have his money or his fame.”
For weeks, police treated Smollett as a victim before shifting course and charging him with staging the attack. The Smollett family member and Tchen raised their concerns amidst of a series of leaks about the case to news media before the actor was charged.
Tchen first contacted Kim Foxx by text on Feb. 1 and said the actor’s family had “concerns” about the investigation, according to the communications.
“Spoke to the Superintendent Johnson,” Foxx responded by email to Tchen on Feb. 1, referring to the city’s top cop, Eddie Johnson. “I convinced him to Reach out to FBI to ask that they take over the investigation.”
Foxx also texted with one of Smollett’s relatives, whose name was redacted in copies of the communication released by her office.
“Spoke to the superintendent earlier, he made the ask,” Foxx wrote. “Trying to figure out logistics. I’ll keep you posted.”
Johnson said in an interview with USA TODAY earlier this month that he told Foxx he was “amenable” to conversations about having the FBI take the lead in the Smollett investigation.
But ultimately, police and federal officials determined it was most appropriate that the investigation continue to be led by Chicago Police, Johnson said. The FBI had been providing city police with technical assistance since soon after it launched its investigation.
“I did speak to the FBI because they handle hate crimes,” Johnson said. “We had conversations about it, but at the end of the day it stayed where it should have, in my opinion.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel continued his criticism of Foxx and the prosecutor’s office on Wednesday for their handling of the case.
“There is something rotten in Denmark,” Emanuel told USA TODAY, paraphrasing a famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “It doesn’t add up . . . I don’t get it.
“People better get their stories straight,” Emanuel said of Foxx’s team. “We’re all owed a sense of accountability in the system.”