Judge rules on potential conflict of interest in Jussie Smollett case
A special prosecutor looking into why charges were abruptly dismissed against actor Jussie Smollett will not be replaced after a judge rejected concerns that campaign money could taint the findings.
The judge’s decision came days after the special prosecutor, former US Attorney Dan Webb, disclosed in a filing that he co-hosted a 2016 fundraiser for Kim Foxx and wrote her campaign a 1,000 dollar (£810) cheque during her successful run for Cook County state’s attorney.
It was Ms Foxx’s office that in March surprised and angered many in Chicago by dropping charges that accused the former Empire actor of staging a racist, homophobic attack against himself.
Smollett is still adamant that the attack was real and was not a publicity hoax.
Judge Michael Toomin appeared to give no credence to concerns that Mr Webb’s disclosure made his position untenable as head of a politically sensitive investigation that could, depending on his findings, lead to the reinstatement of charges against Smollett.
“There’s no indication,” the judge said, that the 74-year-old prosecutor-turned-star private attorney “harbours any bias… to any party.”
Before Judge Toomin delivered his ruling on Friday, Mr Webb told the judge he did not recall the fundraiser, which he said he did not think he attended.
He also said he did not remember writing the cheque until someone brought it to his attention a week ago.
“I don’t know Ms Foxx…. and have never met her, as far as I know,” he said. “This is not even remotely a case that involves a conflict of interest.”
Mr Webb’s investigation includes looking into whether Ms Foxx’s calls with a Smollett relative and an ex-aide of former first lady Michelle Obama unduly influenced the decision to drop charges.
Ms Foxx recused herself from the case but continued to weigh in.
A finding by the special prosecutor that the original charges against Smollett were improperly dropped could also politically damage Ms Foxx, who in 2016 became Cook County’s first black female state’s attorney.
Prosecutor Cathy McNeil Stein, who represented Ms Foxx at Friday’s hearing, told the court her boss did not initially have an issue with Mr Webb staying on.
But she said the state’s attorney now worried that a perception Webb had a conflict “will taint the process” in the eyes of the public.
Retired Judge Sheila O’Brien, who initiated legal action leading to a special prosecutor, agreed.
She praised Mr Webb’s legal acumen but told Judge Toomin: “The concern I have is … what does the average person on the street think?”
Smollett’s lawyers did not take a position on replacing Mr Webb and opposed the appointment of any special prosecutor, arguing the case should have stayed closed.
In explaining his decision not to replace Webb, Judge Toomin cited records that Mr Webb contributed money to state’s attorneys’ campaigns for years, including 3,000 dollars (£2,500) to Ms Foxx’s Democratic primary opponent in 2016, incumbent Anita Alverez.
“It’s common practice for lawyers to make (such) contributions,” the judge said.