Democratic candidate for Attorney General
Responses to our questions
Please explain how you would hit the ground running. On Day 1, what would your primary focus for the office be? How would you reorganize, if at all, the direction of the attorneys who report to you?
My first act will be to initiate a 60-day strategic planning process to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of the operations that work to support the agency's critical mission of consumer protection. I will work to ensure that consumer complaints are being handled efficiently and appropriately, that the agency's resources are focused on the most serious problems, and that the office is using the full extent of its powers to protect the health, social and economic well-being of Illinois citizens.
Second, I will reach out to the Democratic Attorneys General to express my personal commitment to this important coalition and to ask what more the office can do to better protect citizens from the harmful and regressive policies of the Trump Administration. I will then work to ensure there are legal teams assigned and fully resourced to use the powers of the office to combat unconstitutional federal policy positions in areas such as criminal justice, immigration, voting rights, civil rights, and the environment.
Next, I will stand up a Public Safety Bureau within the office to provide more strategic and proactive collaboration and coordination with law enforcement agencies and state's attorneys to: (1) identify and implement evidence-based crime fighting strategies; (2) foster improved accountability and community engagement for law enforcement statewide; and (3) pursue smart criminal justice reform that will address over-incarceration and our unfair court bail system.
I also will move quickly to establish or enhance a Government Integrity Bureau within the office to focus on state and local government corruption in Illinois. Finally, I will conduct an audit of the legal and structural protections in place to ensure the integrity of the electoral process and develop a legislative agenda as necessary to amend or supplement the legal framework to ensure our right to vote cannot be undermined by internal or external influences.
Please explain in detail your legal experience and/or any areas of legal or policy expertise.
My experience serving as a federal prosecutor is directly relevant to the attorney general's litigation and enforcement responsibilities. I provided guidance and legal advice to law enforcement partners through complex long-term investigations, reviewed evidence, recommended criminal charges, and litigated cases. This litigation involved presenting cases before the grand jury, significant motion practice in the district court, and jury trials. I also drafted and argued appeals before the 7th Circuit and responded to habeas corpus petitions.
As First Deputy Inspector General and General Counsel for the Office of the Inspector General, I provided guidance on investigative methods and issues; advised the IG on legal issues; reviewed OIG's written work product; provided input on audits and reviews of City agencies; and led OIG's Hiring Oversight section which was responsible for monitoring the city's hiring practices.
As the Chief Administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and its predecessor agency, the Independent Police Review Authority, I oversaw the agency with jurisdiction over investigations of allegations of police misconduct, weapons discharge incidents, and incidents resulting in the death or serious injury of a civilian while in police custody. The relevant legal framework was multifaceted, involving federal and state, criminal and civil, substantive and procedural law, as well as municipal code, collective bargaining agreements, and police department rules and regulations. I decided the outcomes of the agency's investigations and disciplinary recommendations. I was responsible for managing the work of the agency's legal staff and outside counsel related to criminal, civil and administrative matters. I also collaborated with the agency's law enforcement partners (e.g. Illinois State Police, the FBI, Cook County State's Attorney's office). This experience is directly relevant to the work of the attorney general, who must similarly collaborate and coordinate investigative work with law enforcement partners.
At COPA/IPRA, I worked toward police reform through policy recommendations. Under my leadership, the agency had a direct impact on the evolution of CPD's use of force policies, including significant improvements to the protocols governing the officer-involved shooting and death incident investigations. Most importantly, I created the vision for COPA. I developed the new agency's budget, identified the size and capabilities of the staff necessary to fulfill its mission, implemented a hiring plan to attract the most qualified individuals, and developed policies and procedures to achieve quality, timely and independent investigations. This experience will be tremendously valuable as I look to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the current structure and capabilities of the attorney general's office while developing a clear and compelling vision for how it should best serve the Illinois residents.
Have you ever tried a case? Civil or criminal? If so, how many?
During my tenure as an Assistant United States Attorney, I investigated and charged hundreds of criminal cases. Every case involved the collection, organization and critical evaluation of evidence in preparation for trial. The vast majority of cases were resolved via plea, often entered on the eve of trial. I prepared dozens of cases for trial and tried eight cases to verdict.
Several of the cases represented a diverse set of circumstances and legal issues and were significantly more complex and longer in duration than most criminal trials at the office. For example, I tried weeks-long, complex narcotics cases involving wiretap evidence and narcotics from dozens of enforcement actions; a bank robbery murder case involving complex ballistics and DNA evidence; a case involving the attempted murder of a victim of domestic violence who had been relentlessly stalked by her former boyfriend; and a counter-espionage case involving complex classified technical evidence requiring a top secret security clearance.
How would you prioritize the resources of the office?
The Illinois Attorney General's Office is not as well-resourced as other attorney general offices in states of comparable size. Among the top five states by population, Illinois only ranks above Florida in AG funding per capita. Moreover, the size of the office in terms of number of employees is low relative to other highly populated states. The office's budget and headcount has remained virtually stagnant in the past 10 years. There is no question the office could do more to support and protect the citizens of Illinois with additional resources.
Recognizing that our state's financial condition is dire, as attorney general, I will first work to ensure the resources the agency presently receives are being used wisely to complete the core missions of the office. Beyond that, I would focus the office on consumer protection, public safety and criminal justice reform, government integrity and corruption.
Should the attorney general's grand jury authority be expanded to intensify the role of the AG in fighting corruption? Or is that a more suitable role for federal prosecutors? Please explain your answer.
Federal prosecutors play an important role in the fight against government corruption, but we cannot rely on the federal government alone to deliver the oversight our state needs. All too often, the state's attorneys lack the resources, expertise, or political will to bring criminal corruption cases against political actors. Moreover, many municipalities lack oversight bodies that have the resources and expertise to investigate political corruption. The attorney general's grand jury authority most definitely should be expanded to include the investigation and prosecution of corrupt acts committed by local, county, and state government workers.
The following are some additional ways in which the office can play a more proactive role in rooting out and prosecuting government corruption: Work to introduce revisions to the statute governing the Illinois Legislative Ethics Commission and Legislative Inspector General. Establish and publicize a complaint line for individuals to call to report allegations of misconduct by public officials or government agency employees. Coordinate with the state's attorneys to ensure that any public corruption and police misconduct prosecutions in which the state's attorney has a conflict of interest are referred to the office for prosecution to the extent permissible by law. Work with law enforcement to establish a statewide public integrity task force to ensure that local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies can coordinate activities and share strategies and tactics for investigating public corruption matters.
What do you view as the top three roles of the Illinois attorney general's office?
- To use the law and power of the office to protect the civil rights, health and well-being of Illinois residents and its resources from exploitative, corrupt and unconstitutional practices of government and corporate actors;
- To provide effective and diligent representation for state government and Illinois residents in all matters;
- To provide advice and counsel on important issues that affect our daily lives and to advocate for effective resolutions that consistently represent the best interests of Illinois residents.
To which areas of focus would you devote the most resources?
Because there are certain duties of the office that are statutorily required, such as representation of the state and state agencies, these responsibilities must always be well met. Where the attorney general has the discretion to align resources with critical needs, I would focus first on protecting the health and well-being of residents through effective enforcement of state law, the Illinois Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. My goal will be to level the playing field for individuals and businesses so that they have equal access to educational and economic opportunities, the justice system, and a healthy, safe environment in which to lead their daily lives.
What are the greatest challenges facing the next attorney general?
The civil rights, health and well-being of Illinois residents are in unprecedented peril and are being threatened daily by a variety of forces — exploitative businesses, entrenched political figures, as well as our state and federal government. The next attorney general must have the courage, tenacity, and legal prowess to stand up to these threats and prevail. In particular, the Trump Administration is the greatest threat that our democracy has faced in recent history. I look forward to having a personal role to play in fighting back against the unjust and unconstitutional attacks on women, people of color, our LGBT communities and the foundations of our government.
Give us some examples of when you displayed independence from your party or staked out an unpopular position.
As chief administrator of COPA/IPRA, I fought daily to demonstrate independence from both the Chicago Police Department and the city administration. The work of the civilian oversight agency does not take place in a vacuum. Many of the investigations for which I was responsible arose from highly publicized incidents that generated strong opinions from the various stakeholders involved: with the victims, victim families and community groups often taking one view, and the members of the police department almost always taking the opposite view.
Because many of these incidents were covered extensively by the media, the public discourse was often heated. I led the agency through this difficult environment to ensure that our investigative process was fair and unbiased and the outcomes of our investigations were based on a thorough and accurate review of evidence, without regard for the external political environment. During my tenure of nearly two years, the agency found that CPD officers used excessive force in more officer-involved shooting incidents than in the entire eight year existence of IPRA. I also fought for significantly increased transparency, advocating for the release of video materials even before such release was required by the city's transparency policy.
I also fought against the city administration to obtain two critical elements of independence in the ordinance that established COPA — a budget floor, and the power to obtain outside counsel. Currently, I have demonstrated independence from the Democratic Party by entering and staying in this race. I look forward to the opportunity to serve as a strong, independent voice who stands for progressive democratic values.
What steps have you taken, or would you take, to maintain the independence of the office from the influence of a governor, legislative leaders or members of your political party?
I changed my life mid-career and went to law school to become a change agent. In the years since, I have only worked for the citizens of Illinois — not big law firms or corporations. I have no pre-formed political allegiances that could conflict with the decisions I will make as attorney general. If I am successful in securing the Democratic nomination, I will have done so independently and will owe no favors to power brokers - be they politicians, business owners or other special interest groups - who typically would attempt to influence elected officials for their own political and/or financial gain. I also will not take campaign contributions from entities who have current matters under the jurisdiction of the office.
The Illinois Constitution is vague about the role of the attorney general. How proactive should the attorney general be in injecting himself or herself into issues of education, pensions, state finances, corruption or other issues that don't fall directly under the role of legal adviser?
As the top lawyer in the state with a mission to work to improve the lives of Illinois residents, the attorney general must definitely inject herself into these issues which affect our daily lives. In fact, as a lawyer, the attorney general has an ethical responsibility to ensure the state is doing what is in its citizens' best interests. The office simply can and must do more in this way. Where there are specific legal issues or solutions that can be identified and promoted, the attorney general has a responsibility to educate the electorate about them and ensure the appropriate legal process is pursued in support of them. For example, it was the attorney general's responsibility to ensure the office of the Legislative Inspector General was occupied. The fact that it was not occupied should have been identified and made known publicly before there was a crisis of confidence.
Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us.
Many people are surprised to learn that I have an undergraduate degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, but they are always shocked to learn that I was the lead singer in a business school rock band in the 1980s.
What distinguishes you from your opponents?
My educational credentials, professional background, and life experience make me uniquely qualified to serve as the Illinois Attorney General at this critical, challenging time for our state.
Analytical Skills: I learned early in life that I love to tackle tough problems. I graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Mechanical and Aerospace engineering, which gave me the courage to take on tough challenges and the skills to excel at solving them. These analytical skills have served me well in business, law, and life.
Legal skills and expertise: Prosecutorial experience is essential to the role of attorney general because the office is responsible for conducting investigations, partnering with law enforcement, and prosecuting cases. But an effective attorney general must also be a well-rounded lawyer with experience in other areas. Unlike several candidates, I have extensive complex litigation experience from motion practice through lengthy trials. Moreover, my legal experience spans criminal, civil, and administrative litigation. I also am the only candidate with in-depth experience in police accountability and police reform, which will prove essential for the person who takes on the civil rights litigation initiated by Attorney General Lisa Madigan in pursuit of reform of the Chicago Police Department. My experience teaching law helps me to communicate complex legal concepts to legal novices in a way that is effective and engaging.
Organizational Leadership: I am the only candidate who has experience leading an organization responsible for complex legal matters. My business management experience will provide valuable insights when working to resolve complex legal disputes related to business operations. I have led organizations through difficult, challenging transitions by clearly articulating vision, marshaling the necessary resources, and motivating the organizations to move in lockstep toward a common goal.
Values and Independence: I am a black woman, born at the height of the civil rights era, who came of age during the Women's Liberation movement, and built a business career in the era of Reaganism. Through hard work and diligence, I was able to overcome the obstacles placed before me time and again to succeed in positions of increased responsibility. I have experienced "me-too" moments my entire life. As a prosecutor, I crossed paths with many young African-American men whose lives could have been so different if granted access to the educational and economic opportunities most of the candidates in this race were given. As chief administrator of IPRA, I went to the scenes of officer-involved shootings and witnessed first-hand the destruction and despair leading up to these tragic incidents and left in their wake. I sat through numerous community meetings where residents expressed their outrage and pain over the status quo in our state. For me, this election is not a stepping stone towards higher office or big-money lobbying gigs. These experiences compel me to work for change, to support progressive, democratic values, and to remain steadfast in my personal commitment to justice and integrity.