Tina Tchen’s longtime friend wasn’t surprised the former Obama administration aide helped connect Jussie Smollett’s family with a top Illinois prosecutor.
Weeks before a grand jury indicted Smollett on the theory he falsely reported being the victim of a hate crime, relatives of the actor, who is black and gay, had expressed to Tchen “concerns about the investigation” by Chicago police.
Getting the right person to take those sort of concerns seriously has been a hallmark of Tchen’s career, highlighted by a stint as then-first lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff and now by her work leading a probe of workplace culture at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Long before Black Lives Matter, long before Time’s Up, long before #MeToo, we were aware of how difficult it is to be believed as a woman, as a gay, as a black,” Tchen’s friend, Marilyn Katz, said. “Our whole lives have taught us that lesson.”
But the involvement of Tchen, a Harvard graduate who earned her law degree from Northwestern University, in the Smollett case has sparked accusations of favoritism, particularly after the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx this week dropped 16 felony charges of disorderly conduct against Smollett. In exchange, he agreed to forfeit his $10,000 bail and complete community service.
Tchen, 63, said her contact with Foxx on behalf of Smollett’s family was not intended to influence the case’s outcome.
“I know members of the Smollett family based on prior work together,” she said this week 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.”
That explanation, however, hasn’t quieted calls for investigations into whether Smollett got off easy because of his fame and well-placed connections, perhaps including Tchen.
Smollett’s camp denies the claims. Tchen did not respond beyond her statement to CNN’s request for comment.
Tchen texts prosecutor of family’s ‘concerns’
Smollett told police two men attacked him on January 29, yelling racist and homophobic slurs while striking him. He said the assault ended with a noose placed around his neck and a chemical poured on him.
Tchen reached out to Foxx just three days after the attack report, according to text and email messages obtained by CNN through a public records request. She wrote that the family had “concerns about the investigation.”
Foxx emailed Tchen later that day, saying in part, “Spoke to the (Police) Superintendent (Eddie) Johnson. I convinced him to Reach out to FBI to ask that they take over the investigation. He is reaching out now and will get back to me shortly.”
On that same day, another person, identified by Foxx’s office as a Smollett family friend, texted the prosecutor to ask whether they could talk by phone, the records show. “Tina Tchen gave me your number,” the friend wrote.
Hours later, Foxx responded by text to the family friend, whose identity is redacted in the public records.
“Spoke to the superintendent earlier, he made the ask. Trying to figure out the logistics. I’ll keep you posted,” the prosecutor wrote.
“Omg this would be a huge victory,” the family friend responded.
“I make no guarantees, but I’m trying,” Foxx replied.
Chicago police have said the FBI “has been involved since Day One … providing technical assistance to our officers” in the Smollett case. Johnson has said he was “amenable” to talking about having the FBI lead the Smollett investigation but police and federal officials decided it would be most appropriate for Chicago police to stay at the helm, he told USA Today.
Foxx did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Foxx ties recusal to interaction with family
Foxx and the family friend exchanged text messages until February 13, Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Tandra Simonton has said.
Around that same time, in mid-February, Foxx decided to recuse herself from decision-making in the case after consulting with her ethics officer in the state’s attorney’s office, she told CNN affiliate WLS on Wednesday. It became clear Smollett had gone from victim to suspect, she said.
“We sat down and we talked about the fact that … I don’t want any speculation or concern,” she said. “I don’t even want the appearance that my involvement with this case, having now seen or talked to a family member, would in any way impede this investigation. So, I made the decision in that consultation to say, ‘Wall me off.’”
Foxx said she turned the case over to her first assistant one week before any charges were filed.
Soon after that, evidence began to emerge publicly that Smollett allegedly paid two men to orchestrate the reported assault on him. Police on February 21 arrested Smollett, saying they believed the actor faked the attack to bolster his profile and career. Smollett has maintained that he has been “truthful and consistent” about the assault.
Foxx’s office charged Smollett and “believed that they could prove him guilty,” Foxx told WLS. She later asserted “specific aspects of the evidence and testimony … would have made securing a conviction against Smollett uncertain,” according to a commentary Friday in The Chicago Tribune in which the prosecutor also welcomed an outside review of how the case was handled.
Foxx consistently has said Smollett qualified for a diversion program because of the low level of the crimes and his clean record.
‘No political influence,’ Smollett’s lawyer says
But since the charges were dismissed this week, Foxx’s office’s handling of the case has come under fire, including from the National District Attorneys Association, which released a statement recommending, in part, that prosecutors should not take advice from politically active friends of the accused in high-profile cases.
The Smollett case, the group wrote, illustrates that “the rich are treated differently, the politically connected receive favorable treatment, and Lady Justice sometimes peeks under her blindfold to see who stands before her.”
Smollett’s attorney, Patricia Brown Holmes, said the actor received no special favors or calls on his behalf.
“There was no political influence in this case,” she said.
Chicago’s police union has called for a federal investigation to determine the extent of Foxx’s involvement in the case. The demand is based on news reports about the text messages between Foxx and an attorney about “diverting the case from Chicago police department to a federal investigation,” said Kevin Graham, president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police.
President Donald Trump, via Twitter on Thursday, vowed an FBI and Department of Justice review.
Meantime, Foxx has denied any favoritism.
“I don’t want people to believe that there are two measures of justice for the privileged and those without,” she told WLS. “That’s why we’re so transparent.”
Tchen ‘is someone who seeks practical solutions’
Those who know Tchen, an Ohio native and the daughter of a psychiatrist from China, point to a career marked by equity and empathy in rendering her apparently limited involvement in the Smollett case not unexpected.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever know the truth of the situation,” Katz, a Chicago public relations adviser and political activist, said of the Smollett case. “My first impression is that Tina and I – long before #MeToo – are women who worked on the anti-rape movement and changing police attitudes towards rape victims.
“We’re old enough to have known when police don’t believe black people and police don’t believe women and police don’t believe gay people,” she said.
Besides her stint as the former first lady’s chief of staff, Tchen, a longtime Democratic activist, also worked as an assistant to former President Barack Obama and as executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls.
“Tina always really wants to make sure that she is connecting people and making sure the work she’s doing is front and center in her life,” said Jordan Brooks, who worked for Tchen at the White House and is now managing director of the nonprofit, The United State of Women.
As leader of the Workplace Cultural Compliance practice at the legal and financial services firm Buckley, Tchen now is conducting a “top-to-bottom external review” of workplace culture at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is reeling from allegations over its own treatment of minority and female employees.
Tchen “is someone who seeks practical solutions and … I think it’s been a consistent thing that I have seen her do in different iterations of her career,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of National Women’s Law Center.
Noted Katz: “Nobody ever puts Tina up to anything – let’s be really clear.”
Katz met Tchen when they and others in the 1980s founded the group, Cook County Democratic Women, Katz said. Members still gather to celebrate each other’s birthdays and to press their positions in the public square.
Those coequal aims, she said, reflect the kind of personal and policy priorities Tchen seems to have acted on in the Smollett case.
“If anything happened, we would call someone we knew and say, ‘I’m concerned about a friend. Can you make sure that it’s on the up-and-up?’” Katz said of the political organization. “We would call each other and say, ‘I’m worried about something. What do you think or can you help?’ – without thinking about it.”