Why Former Michelle Obama Aide Was in Contact with the State Attorney for Jussie Smollett's Case
"My sole activity was to put the chief prosecutor in the case in touch with an alleged victim's family," Tina Tchen said in a statement to PEOPLE
Michelle Obama‘s former top aide was in contact with the prosecutor in Jussie Smollett’s case, weeks before a grand jury indicted the Empire actor on 16 counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly making false reports on Feb. 20.
Tina Tchen, who worked as Obama’s chief of staff and now leads the Southern Poverty Law Center, texted with Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx amid the investigation. The communication between Foxx and Tchen, who describes herself as a “family friend” of the Smolletts, raised questions after Foxx’s office dropped all felony charges against Smollett.
In a statement to PEOPLE, Tchen explained her involvement: “I know members of the Smollett family based on prior work together. 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.”
Tchen, who released the statement one day after Smollett’s charges were dropped, further shared, “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.”
Smollett, 36, had faced 16 counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly fabricating details of an assault that occurred around 2 a.m. local time on January 29 on a street in his Chicago neighborhood. The black and openly gay actor claimed the two mask-clad men who attacked him hurled racist and homophobic insults, doused him with a chemical, and slipped a rope around his neck, which Smollett still had on when later interviewed by police.
Throughout the case, Smollett maintained his innocence. He previously pleaded not guilty to allegations that he lied to police when he said he was attacked by two men in what authorities later had claimed was a staged incident to draw attention to himself.
In mid-February, Foxx said her decision to recuse herself from the case was due to her communication with Tchen and an unnamed Smollett family member.
Text and email messages obtained by CNN, NBC Chicago and USA Today show Tchen and Foxx began talking about Smollett’s case on Feb. 1 when Tchen contacted Foxx saying the actor’s family “have concerns about the investigation.”
In her response, Foxx said, “Spoke to the Superintendent Johnson,” referring to Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who was among those to publicly debunk Smollett’s police report. “I convinced him to reach out to FBI to ask that they take over the investigation,” Foxx added.
On that same day, the unnamed Smollett relative texted Foxx in a separate exchange to ask whether they could talk by phone, the records show. “Tina Tchen gave me your number,” the relative wrote.
“Spoke to the superintendent earlier, he made the ask. Trying to figure out logistics. I’ll keep you posted,” Foxx responded.
“Omg this would be a huge victory,” the relative replied to which Foxx said: “I make no guarantees, but I’m trying.”
Foxx and the relative communicated via text message until Feb. 13.
When news of Smollett’s dropped charges was made public on March 26, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office told PEOPLE: “After reviewing all the facts and circumstances of the case, including Mr. Smollett’s volunteer service in the community and agreement to forfeit his bond to the City of Chicago, we believe this outcome is a just disposition and appropriate resolution to this case.”
Foxx’s office did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.
Meanwhile, Smollett’s lawyer, Patricia Brown Holmes, previously told CNN’s Don Lemon during an interview that “there was no political influence in this case,” adding, “No one political called that I know of. I don’t think anyone political reached out to anyone. I don’t think they would have allowed anyone political to reach out to them.”
Representatives for Smollett did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.
Both Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago police superintendent Eddie T. Johnson have publicly criticized the dropping of charges against Smollett, with Emanuel calling it “an unbelievable whitewash of justice.”