The race this year for Cook County state’s attorney recalls the days when the Irish Catholics ruled Chicago, when Jews, blacks, Poles, Hispanics, and Lithuanians were mere shadows on the political horizon. Voters will be asked to choose between Jack O’Malley and Pat O’Connor. One is the Republican incumbent, the other a Democratic alderman. Between now and November both candidates will be trying to teach the voters which is which.
There’s more behind the confusion than the almost comical similarity of the candidate’s names. They are of the same generation–O’Malley is 41 years old, O’Connor 38–they’re both the sons of city employees, both have strong ties to the Police Department, both attended Loyola University. And the Republican incumbent, O’Malley, cannot be described as a very staunch Republican. He’s voted Republican in recent presidential elections but often split his ballot for local races, which makes him not unlike a lot of Cook County Democrats.
But there are differences between them–mostly differences of life-style and personal outlook. They also differ, though not radically, on how the office of state’s attorney ought to be run.
While O’Connor was born to politics, O’Malley ran for state’s attorney in l990 without any political ties beyond a few friendships with Republican attorneys at his law firm, Winston & Strawn. And while both men were altar boys in the Catholic Church, O’Connor remains a devout Catholic who lives by all the rules and goes to Mass every Sunday and O’Malley fell away from the church when he was a teenager. Now only an occasional churchgoer, O’Malley says, “My generation seems to be one that returns to the church when they have children.”
The Catholicism of the two candidates is now a backdrop to their dispute over the way O’Malley’s office has responded to accusations of sexual abuse of children that have been made against Catholic priests. O’Connor accuses O’Malley of dragging his heels, particularly with respect to a priest formerly of Chicago who was eventually charged with abuse in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. O’Malley explains that he couldn’t bring local charges because the statute of limitations for the priest’s alleged crimes here had run out. However, he says that last December he did become the first Cook County state’s attorney to bring sexual abuse charges against any Chicago clergyman when Father Robert Mayer was indicted.
In June, four days after the Catholic archdiocese announced that it was investigating 40 years of abuse allegations against its priests, O’Malley subpoenaed the archdiocese for priests’ records going back to 1984. The archdiocese provided partial records of 20 priests. On August 28 O’Malley issued a second subpoena for the complete files of those priests. On September 3 the archdiocese went into court to attempt to quash the subpoena, and as of this writing the case was pending.
O’Connor says, “What Jack has done [by issuing the subpoenas] is to put up a smokescreen to cover his ineffectiveness in going after clerical pedophiles. He says he needs this information from the church. The church says it’s privileged information. So Jack goes to the Tribune instead of going to court. He’s trying to suggest that he can’t proceed against those people without their employment records in the church. He’s trying to make it look like it’s the church’s fault that he’s not prosecuting these guys. But when he prosecuted that school janitor for molestation, he didn’t need his employment records. Why does he need them for the priests?”
O’Malley asks how O’Connor knows what records he obtained in the case of a public school janitor indicted last June on eight counts of aggravated sexual abuse. “He couldn’t know. He could only know if he was here on the inside.” Further, O’Malley says, “I didn’t pick the public fight with the archdiocese. The only thing we made public was my letter to the cardinal requesting the records after he issued that report. The charges against those priests are criminal charges that belong in our office. They shouldn’t try to do the job. As far as his charge that I went to the Tribune instead of going to court, that’s just silly. That’s what we did, we went to court. We only learned that the media had somehow gotten hold of the second subpoena when someone from Channel Five called and said, ‘Watch the ten o’clock news.'”
O’Malley adds, “For O’Connor to make all these statements publicly–that I don’t want to prosecute clergy–could have the effect of discouraging people from coming forward with their charges. That’s a very irresponsible thing for him to do.”
When he was in law school, O’Malley looked wistfully at the state’s attorney’s office. This, he thought, was a job he would enjoy. But he recognized it as a political office probably beyond his reach. He’d grown up in the suburbs and had never been involved in party politics.
Then, in l990, bored with commercial litigation–corporations suing corporations–O’Malley studied the race for state’s attorney that was shaping up. Richard M. Daley had left the office to become mayor in l989, Cecil Partee had been appointed by County Board president George Dunne to take Daley’s place, and now there would be an election to fill out the remaining two years of the term. “Partee would obviously be the Democratic candidate, and the Republicans didn’t seem to know who they would run,” O’Malley explained recently. “I had no ties to either party, but it looked like I could win more easily as a Republican.” So he told his good friend Dan Webb, a former Republican U.S. attorney now at Winston & Strawn, that he wanted to run for state’s attorney.
Why? Webb wondered. O’Malley was earning more than $l50,000 a year as a partner in a prestigious firm. The state’s attorney’s job paid $l00,000. O’Malley told Webb he was restless and bored. It was time to move on.
Webb talked to Governor James Thompson. “Thompson was tremendous about it,” O’Malley recalled. “He didn’t know me, but he sat and talked with me and then came out and endorsed me. People who claim Thompson picked me for the job are absolutely wrong. I take full credit for seeing the opportunities, though of course it’s true I couldn’t have won without the support of Thompson and Dan Webb.”
O’Malley is a tall, well-built man who looks and sounds like what he is, a high school football player grown up, a refined product of a working-class Irish Catholic family with a trace of the neighborhood lingering in his speech. He looks younger than his 41 years with his light brown hair parted in the middle, his almost round fleshy face and horn-rimmed glasses, a near-impish grin that breaks into laughter regularly. He’s a little too ordinary-looking to be called handsome. During our interviews he wore a conservative but slightly ill-fitting suit, a white shirt, an innocuous silk tie that seemed to annoy him–he kept pushing it away–and no jewelry except a watch. He’s a restless man. Energy seems to radiate from him. Yet he often sits with his feet on the desk, favoring an ailing back.
One of the few photos in O’Malley’s large office, which is furnished in Scandinavian modern and overlooks the plaza on the fifth floor of the Daley Center, shows him sparring with Muhammad Ali. O’Malley likes sports. “I even played in a full-dress high school reunion football game at our 20th reunion.”
The thing that most separates O’Malley from O’Connor is his daring. He has always been a risk taker. He seeks new challenges, moves around, changes jobs, gets bored and restless after a few years. He’s flipped hamburgers in a carnival, worked on a carnation farm, sold sporting goods in California after dropping out of college, worked as a security guard, been a cop and a high-priced corporate lawyer. He views the state’s attorney’s job as a challenge. He said, “I saw the job as very exciting and it still is, far more exciting than commercial litigation ever was.”
His wife Terri is a lawyer he met at Winston & Strawn who is much like her husband. After a rather brief but successful career as a lawyer, she is now close to graduating from Northwestern Medical School. Next on her agenda, after finishing her professional training, is to have a family.
The couple recently bought a century-old graystone they are gradually rehabbing in Hyde Park, which is where O’Malley has lived since he entered law school at the University of Chicago. Before that he lived in several neighborhoods around the city, like someone looking for a place to light. He grew up in south Elmhurst, in an enclave of devout, working-class Irish Catholics. One of six children of a Chicago fireman in a neighborhood where a dozen kids wasn’t unusual, he attended Catholic schools and was an altar boy.
O’Malley says he learned the work ethic by working for his father. “You can’t call in sick when your father’s your boss, especially if he’s been out all night fighting a fire and has no sympathy for a teenage kid who wants to sleep in.” Like most firemen, O’Malley’s father worked a second job; he did painting and decorating, and O’Malley was recruited as a helper when he was not yet in his teens. He was paid something, he told me, “but looking back, I think I might have gotten gypped.” Through his teens, O’Malley also worked at other jobs. When he was 12, he worked as a dishwasher and busboy after school, and later he pumped gas.
Like so many of his fellow Irish Catholics, O’Malley did what he says he was expected to do and enrolled at Loyola University; but bored and restless, he dropped out after a couple of months and hit the road. He roamed around the United States and Europe for the next couple of years, touring northern and central Europe with a high school buddy on mopeds, staying in youth hostels, and visiting North Africa and Greece with a woman doctor “a couple years older than me.” He says, grinning, “It was a lot more exciting than sitting in a college dormitory.”
During those years O’Malley found time to take a few courses at the College of Du Page County. Later he attended the University of Illinois at Chicago, and he finally graduated from Loyola after he’d become a police officer. He went to Loyola “because it was in the l8th [police] District where I worked.” He left the force to spend a year at Cornell University Law School, then, having run out of money, returned to Chicago and rejoined the police. He worked nights and attended the University of Chicago Law School by day.
“I had never had the luxury of going to school full-time except that year at Cornell, so it wasn’t hard to do. It just required discipline. I got behind sometimes but I always caught up,” he told me.
O’Malley joined the police force in l973 because “it was the most exciting thing I could think of to do, and it turned out I was right.” He worked a couple of years in a squad car in the crime-ridden Fillmore District, and when his boss was given command of the l8th District on the Gold Coast, O’Malley went with him. There O’Malley worked first on the high-pressure tactical unit, then briefly guarded Jane Byrne, a job he took because it would give him time to study but soon gave up when he became too bored. He also spent several summers patrolling the beaches on a motorcycle, an assignment he had admired from afar even before he became a cop. During his nine years on the force he finished college and law school. His view of the state’s attorney’s office was clearly influenced by his experiences as a cop.
When O’Malley finished law school in 1981 he joined the city’s law department. During his five years there, most of his cases involved the police, including the city’s defense against a 1973 U.S. Justice Department suit that alleged discrimination in the promotion of black sergeants. By 1989, when a consent decree finally ended this litigation, O’Malley had moved on to private practice.
Pat O’Connor’s life was pretty well decided for him at an early age. He grew up expecting to “go into public service, whether elected or appointed, because my dad had always done that.” His father, an appointee of Mayor Richard J. Daley, spent years as deputy commissioner of the Department of Streets and Sanitation. “It was dinner-table conversation every night, how the city handled all the problems,” O’Connor told me. “It was always very interesting to me.”
O’Connor’s first case as a lawyer was arguing the suit his father filed against the city and Jane Byrne, after the new mayor accused Patrick O’Connor Sr. of poor performance and fired him. The O’Connors settled out of court for a sum of money and a guarantee of good references. When Byrne lost to Harold Washington in l983, O’Connor Sr. returned to the public payroll. He was hired by the City Council’s Finance Committee, chaired by Edward Burke. He’s now the committee’s assistant chief of staff, although lately he’s been working steadily in his son’s campaign office. Another son, Michael, who’s normally a lobbyist in Washington, is running his brother’s campaign.
I interviewed O’Connor at his large cluttered desk in his equally cluttered little office. I sat in the one chair not loaded with papers. O’Connor is a small, beefy man in gold-rimmed glasses who looks older than his 37 years because his face is prematurely lined and his hair prematurely white, a hereditary trait. He wore a carefully tailored, conservative suit, a white shirt, blue suspenders, and a large gold college graduation ring and gold cuff links with the city seal on them. They were a Christmas present from Eddie Burke. O’Connor’s office walls are graced by old photos and posters of John Wayne; he’s been collecting memorabilia of his hero since he was a teenager.
There is a world-weary quality to O’Connor. Yet he talks like a contented man who has gotten what he wanted out of life and is confident about his future. He is soft-spoken and placid in conversation. It is hard to imagine O’Connor getting truly enraged or overjoyed about anything. A certain stillness characterizes him, almost the opposite of the raw energy that O’Malley emanates.
O’Connor has lived and worked all his life on the northwest side, in a middle-class melting pot of Greeks, Jews, Germans, and Irish. When I asked him what part of the northwest side, he replied, “Saint Hilary’s Parish.” Saint Hilary is where he went to grade school and Hilary is his eldest daughter’s name. He spent a year at Evanston’s Saint Gregory high school, after which that school closed and he transferred to his neighborhood’s public high, Mather, which at the time was almost all Jewish. One of five children, O’Connor was also an altar boy, though he quit that after only a year.
As a teenager O’Connor held a variety of summer jobs, and during college he worked summers as a truck driver. After he was married, he got a part-time job running the Saint Hilary gym. “Everybody in the neighborhood was expected to go to school, go to college, and work to help pay for it,” he told me.
O’Connor has known his wife Barbara since they were eight years old. They were married when he was 23 and in law school. They have five children, ages two through ten, and he hopes there won’t be any more. His wife holds an MBA from Loyola, and recently earned a real estate license and began working two days a week.
“My wife’s going back to work is good for our relationship,” O’Connor said. “So much of the attention of other people comes to me that it sometimes causes real problems. If Barbara wasn’t a strong person, she could get lost in the shuffle. Thank God she’s the kind of person who can say, “OK, time out, this isn’t working.’ I’m glad she’s doing this. I don’t care whether she ever sells anything. She’s enjoying it. I’ve become much more aware of the effect this kind of life can have on the family.”
O’Connor graduated cum laude from Loyola and went on to law school there. After he graduated from law school in l979, he worked for Roddy and Tully, a politically connected law firm where he had clerked during his last year in school. When the partners split up, O’Connor followed Tom Tully (a former Cook County assessor), but a couple years later he rented space with Joseph Roddy and he’s still there, catercorner to City Hall, in his tiny office in the Chicago Temple Building, doing real estate and personal injury work. It’s a practice that doesn’t create conflicts with his aldermanic duties.
A large part of O’Connor’s legal practice during the four years before he became an alderman consisted of defending cops “who either ran afoul of the law or the administration in union connections.” Joe Roddy is probably the top cop defender in Chicago. O’Connor worked on Roddy’s cases and then began to do his own. He got to know a lot of cops–some good, he says, and some bad–and his present views of law enforcement are strongly influenced by those encounters.
In l983, four years out of law school, O’Connor ran for alderman–mainly, he says, to deflect political energy inside his ward from Jane Byrne’s attempted reelection. He won a tight three-way race in a runoff and entered the City Council with “a foolish swelled head.” He promptly put eight precinct captains and members of his family on his staff payroll. “It was stupid,” he told me. “I had been known as a pretty progressive guy, and then all of a sudden I was a party hack.”
The following year he was elected ward committeeman, a post he held onto until last month, when he turned it over to an uncle, Mike Dever. When Richard M. Daley resigned as state’s attorney in 1989, O’Connor wanted the job. It went to Cecil Partee, however, because George Dunne felt a black should be given the post. The next year, O’Connor took on Partee in the Democratic primary and lost again. The race whetted his appetite, he says; in this year’s four-way primary he won every ward and township in Cook County.
O’Connor insists that he was not one of the doctrinaire white aldermen who set out to oppose Harold Washington at every turn in the City Council. But he admits that he never broke ranks with the Vrdolyak 29. O’Connor was not a strident foe like Ed Vrdolyak or Edward Burke, say council observers. Instead he made long, pompous speeches that tried to put a legitimate face on illegitimate behavior. One Washington supporter says, “His speeches were almost worse than Burke’s bombast.”
O’Connor’s opponent in the April runoff in 1983 had endorsed Washington’s Republican opponent, Bernard Epton. O’Connor refused to follow suit. “He was a Republican,” he says. But when signs appeared in the ward linking O’Connor with Washington, O’Connor sued his opponent. Such a slander could have lost him the election.
“My relationship with Washington wasn’t that bad,” O’Connor remembers. “I invited him to speak in the ward not long after the election and had him to dinner at my house. Harold was very understanding and forgiving of his enemies.” In the council, O’Connor chaired the education committee. “Unlike the other committees that were holding Harold’s appointments hostage to the battle, my education appointments went through in an efficient and timely manner because my relationship with him was not as bad as those of other aldermen. You don’t hold the children of the city hostage to a political battle.”
Since Washington’s death, O’Connor has been relatively quiet. He generally supports Mayor Daley’s agenda, as do most members of the supine body that the council has again become. Still, Alderman O’Connor has done a few worthwhile things. He sponsored a successful bill requiring businesses that produce toxic wastes to dispose of them in ways that protect the environment. He introduced a bill requiring developers of new office buildings to provide affordable child care to the buildings’ eventual occupants; Daley opposed the measure and it didn’t pass, but the city was prompted to start up some pilot projects to test the idea.
O’Connor views the state’s attorney’s job as a good career move. “The office allows you to practice your profession and still be in public service. If you stay in the City Council too long people say you can’t do anything else. And if I decide that I want to go back into private life again, it will be easier to hang up my shingle or go with a good firm. The office offers a great opportunity to grow in the profession, and politically, too.”
If O’Malley looks like a maverick and O’Connor like a close-to-the-belt politician, both are highly intelligent and thoughtful. O’Malley is better versed in the intellectual background to law enforcement and now has the benefit of two years of trying to solve some of the massive problems that confront the state’s attorney’s office. But O’Connor is astute about the problems of the office and seems more conscious, as a result of his experience as a politician, of the community pressures that lead a state’s attorney to make certain kinds of decisions.
Because it handles civil as well as criminal cases, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, with 818 attorneys and 609 clerical and other workers, is the largest local prosecutorial office in the nation. When O’Malley took over in l990 he found himself unprepared to manage such a large bureaucracy. So he reached out to Kenneth Gillis, a highly regarded chancery judge who’d served ten years in the state’s attorney’s office, and convinced him to come back as O’Malley’s first assistant.
Gillis replaced most of the supervisors that O’Malley inherited and beefed up some divisions that needed it, such as gang crimes and juvenile court. He moved drug cases to night court to free the courts by day for more complex cases, and is now working to reform the child support unit to make child support payments easier to collect. He’s hired 25 lawyers more representative of minorities, women, and universities beyond Chicago than the staff O’Malley inherited had been. “I am here to implement Jack’s ideas, to make sure that they don’t fall between the bureaucratic cracks,” Gillis says.
Rob Warden, former editor of the Chicago Lawyer, has been a leading critic of Chicago’s judges and law enforcement officials, especially the two Republicans who paved the way for O’Malley to run for state’s attorney, former U.S. attorneys James Thompson and Dan Webb. But Warden joined O’Malley’s campaign in l990 as issues director and is back again this year as issues coordinator.
“The office is a mess,” said Warden. “It is a much bigger mess than even I had known.” As an example Warden offered crime statistics, the collection of which is a mandated duty of the state’s attorney.
“One of the things Jack said during the l990 campaign,” Warden told me, “is that he thought the reason the office had not published the crime statistics was that they would be embarrassing, and that after he got into office, while he knew the statistics would also embarrass him, he would nevertheless put them out. Then he found out that the reason they didn’t publish the statistics was because they didn’t have them. They don’t have an integrated computer system capable of generating the stuff. There is no intelligent tracking system, which has to be offender-based, to figure out what’s really going on. It is a monumental task. Computer consultants are working on it, but they have to figure out how to do it. And you need the cooperation of other agencies. So what we’re doing in the meantime is just random sampling. We can’t produce the statistics, so all we can do is a survey to show what we believe the statistics will ultimately reflect.”
O’Connor’s view of the state’s attorney’s office isn’t much different from Warden’s, except that he tends to see the solutions as relatively easy to attain. He said, “There are all kinds of problems, but it simply takes some ingenuity and creativity to see where the problems are and find the solutions. For instance, you need to reform juvenile court. Over half the cases coming into juvenile court are never tried. They’re just dismissed. Now that’s a terrible waste of assets. You shouldn’t be charging all those kids that way, using valuable time and energy. There are other means of dealing with youth offenders than sending them up for trial. You need to focus there and find another way to organize things.”
In fact, Gillis told me, after the Sun-Times published a critique of juvenile court earlier this year, the system was changed. “We are trying to keep about a third of the cases from ever reaching the courts,” he said.
O’Connor stresses personnel shifts. “You have a public integrity unit with four assistant state’s attorneys and a supervisor,” he said. “Then you look at traffic court. You’ve got 20 assistants who are the least experienced in the office with two supervisors. The ratio of supervision is one to ten in this unit that has the least experienced attorneys on the staff, and in the units where you have much more qualified and experienced attorneys it’s one to four. It doesn’t make any sense. You’re oversupervising where you need less supervision and shorting those units where you need much more supervision and training. You’ve got all those inexperienced attorneys trying cases against drunk drivers where you want to get convictions, going up against some of the best attorneys in the city. If you want to really prosecute drunk drivers, you have to put some more experienced attorneys in there. Major changes like that have to be made to create more efficiency.”
Another area that O’Connor criticizes is the appellate division. “You have no appeals data bank for trial attorneys. Let’s say you have an attorney trying a case out at 26th and California. If you had that data bank he could call the appellate section and ask, ‘Do you have a brief on such and such that I can use in this case?’ No. That attorney has to do all the original research for each new case while you’ve got a whole appellate section who, if they just indexed their research and updated it regularly, could provide instantaneous information for that attorney, which would allow him more time for the trial. All that would take would be one person in charge of the files.”
O’Connor also calls for reform of the department of domestic violence. Whenever a protection order is violated, he wants the victim to be able to call the state’s attorney’s office directly, instead of having to go through the police. “It would just take maybe one or two more attorneys to be on call to make that whole system more efficient in an area where we have a tremendous problem.”
Critics of the state’s attorney’s office are easy to find. One is Paul Bradley, who has worked at 26th and California since l966 as a public defender and then as a private criminal defense lawyer. “Nothing has changed for years,” he told me. “It’s prosecute to the hilt and waste the taxpayer’s money. They don’t reduce charges even if it’s in the best interests of everyone involved, the public in general and the defendant as well. They will take cases that are basically little garbage-can cases and instead of reducing them for a plea, they will go for statistics.
“For example, I have a l7-year-old kid who had dropped out of high school and was working and back getting his GED. He went into one of the stores and tried to pass a stolen credit card. No question, he’s guilty as hell before a jury. The state’s attorney’s office refused to reduce the charge, went through two or three court appearances, a preliminary hearing, returned a four- or five-count indictment, and sent it off to a trial court where I fully expect a competent judge will coerce the state’s attorney to reduce it to a misdemeanor and give him probation, which I wanted in the first place. I’ve seen cases where a kid stealing a cassette tape out of a car was charged with burglary.
“In other words, what they’ve done since they expanded the courtrooms, with a huge increase in the staff over the last l5 to 20 years–they’re out there, two to three to a courtroom, processing paper–is to justify those salaries with higher charges. And then there’s this drug thing, in which they refuse to reduce the charges even if the defendant is in his 30s and has no prior record and the person goes to jail for six years, which costs a whole bunch of the state’s money.
“I don’t see any use of discretion by state’s attorneys to recognize the defendant who is a proven criminal versus the first offender to whom you say, ‘OK, you get off this time, but if you screw up again you’re going to the penitentiary.’ They’re so afraid of the press saying they’re soft on crime that there’s no discretion, no judgment used in that office, and there hasn’t been for years.”
Bradley is cynical about real change from either O’Malley or O’Connor. “If they were serious they would say first thing, ‘I’m going to reduce the office by 20 percent because we don’t need all those prosecutors.’ Then they’d say, ‘Even if one out of the l0,000 cases we gave probation to comes back and commits another crime, this is the way we’re going to do it. We’re going to ignore the press when they start screaming for a new state’s attorney, because that’s just part of the risk that goes with the job.’
“Everybody forgets about the 9,900 other people who get a break in the court and are put on probation and go on to live productive lives. But that’s the Willie Horton nature of politics these days. No one talks about the thousands of people who were furloughed in Massachusetts and went out and got a job and were never arrested again.”
Public defender Viola Rouse, who specializes in homicides, offered a more specific view of the political pressures that have led to a rise in felony charges. “All of the recent state’s attorneys have always been running for office. Daley was running for mayor and then for reelection and then for mayor again and Partee was running for reelection and now O’Malley is running for reelection, so they’re always under that siege mentality,” Rouse said. “They can’t make any decision that might come back to haunt them during their election campaigns. They have to be very tough. They have to overcharge and not be willing to make offers on plea negotiations that would be much more reasonable in a nonelection setting. Daley was always running for mayor so he was probably the worst offender.”
Warden and Gillis acknowledge the outside pressures on the office. Warden said, “You’ve got all those attorneys out there making decisions and some of them are going to be wrong. And yet the state’s attorney is held accountable. Those attorneys feel the political pressure and figure, ‘Golly, we’re much safer to go for broke on this thing and charge somebody even when the evidence isn’t there.’ On the one hand, we’ve got prison overcrowding, courts clogged with little cases. But you’ve got–and this is the Achilles’ heel–all that political pressure.”
Gillis added, “I think we should return to the former practice of settling out cases in the lower courts. It would relieve the pressure on the criminal courts, it would make the cost of litigation less. The reason we haven’t done it yet is because it takes time to restart that mechanism in the preliminary hearing courts, to tell the attorneys that they are authorized to settle these cases, to suggest ranges of just settlements.”
Asked about Rouse’s assertion that the process is warped by state’s attorneys running for office and bending to public pressure, Gillis said, “It goes beyond the candidate. In any election situation, it seems that the attorneys are afraid to make a mistake. They are afraid of seeing a headline, ‘Murderer gets probation, goes out and kills six people.’ So even if we instituted these procedures, told the attorneys to settle out, that we would back them up in their judgment calls, probably nothing would happen because they would say, ‘Yeh, I heard what they said, but I’m not going to take responsibility.’ So they get a case where the attorney can get prison time for the guy on a manslaughter charge even if the evidence is not wonderful, it’s easier politically to pass it up to the higher courts and let it go that way.”
Are there really more state’s attorneys than the office needs? Gillis called Paul Bradley’s criticism nonsense. “First of all,” he said, “there is much more crime out there that results not only in more state’s attorneys but more public defenders, more judges, more support staff. Secondly there was a Supreme Court decision, People v. Lewis, in about l977 that required that defendants be put on trial much more quickly. The office responded by putting on more attorneys to handle this. Both of these factors have been reflected throughout the system.
“One statistic makes all this clear. In 1950, there was one prosecutor who handled all the suburbs. Each day, he took a different suburb or two. He handled it all. We now have about 120 assistant attorneys in the suburbs to answer the needs there.” Gillis mentioned a change in the system in the late 70s that immediately required about l0 new attorneys and about 30 more since. The office was federally mandated to add a unit to try to collect child support from errant fathers. The idea was to eliminate the need for mothers to hire lawyers for this purpose, lawyers whose fees sometimes exceeded the delinquent payments. The new program was paid for by the federal government.
Gillis now plans to overhaul the child support unit by consolidating at one location, 32 W. Randolph, the 34 branches of domestic relations and paternity courts now spread across the county, and adding a nurse to take blood tests to determine paternity, a job counselor, and an appeals judge.
O’Connor, on the other hand, would further decentralize the unit. Currently, a woman can file a claim for child support only at the Daley Center. After being processed downtown the claims are sent out to neighborhood courts. Under the present system, O’Connor said, “it takes months to get any action on a claim, to even file a claim. I have people all over the city waiting to donate space to put intake units in there to process these claims faster.”
O’Connor agrees with defense attorneys who say the system is filing excessive charges against the accused. “The mind-set that exists today in the state’s attorney’s office has really reduced the quality of prosecutions of lesser cases, but it’s also brought down the quality of prosecutions of very important cases because they are putting less resources and less time in on them while they prosecute all these little cases.
“The decision that’s been made is, ‘We’ll charge everybody with the most serious crime we can, and if the judges let them go, that’s fine.’ The result is that you have kids involved in snowball fights being charged with battery. So their numbers of indictments are up, but the state’s attorney’s conviction loss rate goes up at the same time because there isn’t the evidence to find them guilty. The attorney’s ability to handle his caseload, to negotiate, is lessened because his ability to use his own judgment has been absolutely nullified. The result is that the system is totally overburdened. The ability of the state to concentrate very finite resources is really limited. What used to take a year to l8 months to try a murder case now takes two years. As a result, many of their cases are falling apart because of the time delays. It’s partly the result of overcharging and partly mismanagement of resources. To run that office efficiently with that mind-set is almost impossible.
“Two years ago, when Daley left office, the caseload was way down. Now there are hundreds and hundreds of cases in those courtrooms even though we’ve added more courtrooms and more judges. The law allows for all kinds of alternative sentencing, like drug schools, but none of that is being utilized because politically it’s not good to appear as if you’re soft on crime.”
When I told O’Connor that defense attorneys I’d talked to claim the mind-set he described has dominated the state’s attorney’s office for years, he said, “That’s true, but O’Malley should be doing something to change that system.”
O’Malley commented, “I can confidently say that nothing happens in this office as a result of political pressure. I may do a lot of things that defense attorneys don’t like, but I’m not doing them because of political pressures but because in my mind they’re the right things to do. Ask your defense attorneys if they are willing to take their cases before downstate judges. You will find that sentences for the same crimes are far more stringent downstate than in Cook County. Why should the people of Cook County not have the same protection of the law as those downstate? My goal as state’s attorney is to protect victims of crime just as if they lived somewhere else in Illinois, and to set equal conditions whether they live in a public housing development or on the North Shore.
“You’ve got to hear it from the other side. We have police officers who say we let too many people off on probation. They come in and say, ‘We caught this guy stealing tires off a car. We went to a lot of trouble to catch this guy and the state’s attorney only files misdemeanor charges.’ If we have an occasional complaint from the Police Department along those lines and a pervasive attitude by defense lawyers that we’re too tough, we’re probably doing the right thing.
“On the other hand, if you’re talking about managing scarce resources, it might be better to go back to settling out cases in the lower courts, and Ken and I are talking about it. But the fact is that since we completed our reorganization of the office in June l991 we have reduced the number of felony cases that had been pending from 6 to 30 months by 6 percent. At the same time that we speeded up the dispositions, we had a record felony conviction rate of 93 percent.”
The civil section generates about a quarter of the state’s attorney’s cases. Among the units in the civil division are environmental, consumer fraud, utilities, mental health, public integrity (government corruption), child support, and financial crimes. I asked each of the candidates for his views on the civil division.
O’Malley: “While it’s not strictly civil because domestic violence can be criminal as well, we have strengthened that unit. We named a coordinator to oversee prosecutions in the three courtrooms devoted to domestic violence and we arranged for additional working space at l3th and Michigan and had cubicles installed to give privacy to victims and witnesses who used to have to stand out in the hallways. I participate as much as I can with the advocacy groups, because I think my role is to help publicize the issue. The most important thing is to work with the support groups, the shelters, and so on, because law enforcement can’t do that job alone.
“On the environment, I’m the chairman of the National District Attorney’s Environment Committee, a job I took on because of my concern with these issues. We have hired an investigator whose background is not police work but environmental work to help us in this area. We are working with some charter boat captains to bring up samples of lake water to keep an eye on lake pollution.
“On utilities, which is another mandate of the state’s attorney’s office, we are expected to represent consumers in rate cases and other issues, but it is one of the areas that I’m not much of an expert in.”
O’Connor sees the civil division from the point of view of the lawyers in the office. “The office needs to have a good civil section because it is the lawyer’s best training ground. You look at the current state’s attorney’s office and you see that they farm out a tremendous amount of the civil cases. They are paying law firms a lot more than they’re paying current staff. If you have 500-and-some attorneys over in that office, some of them must be able to do medical malpractice and the other civil issues, which would allow you to save money and hire more professionals. It will also help you to keep your professionals longer.
“In the current situation, when you come out of the state’s attorney’s office you are suited to criminal work or any trial work, but your skills are limited. That’s why you have such a turnover there. If you had an office with a broader range of work you could offer your attorneys much more experience.
“But basically, some of those units in the civil section are like parlor dressing. For instance, you have four assistant state’s attorneys in the public integrity unit. They are the attorneys who’ve been in the office a long time. It’s a way of rewarding the attorneys who’ve been around for a while. I would think if you’re going to be serious about public integrity that wouldn’t be enough.”
O’Malley wonders here about O’Connor’s consistency. “He has criticized me several times for putting too much emphasis on white-collar crime and public integrity issues. He can’t have it both ways. The results of our public integrity unit speak for themselves–a record number of public integrity indictments at all levels of government. We recently got a six-year sentence for a sitting judge. That was the first time ever the state’s attorney indicted a sitting judge.
“At the other end of the spectrum, we announced, also for the first time in the county’s history, that we indicted six guys who were supposed to be sweeping the streets with brooms but were collecting city paychecks while they were out robbing people or working at other jobs. We have special investigators working at every level of government, Republican and Democratic.
“In addition, I have created a special election fraud unit, and the woman who runs it, Mary Bucaro, is doing a super job. She has strong Democratic credentials, which I thought was necessary in an office run by a Republican. She has already gotten l5 indictments from the l990 election and has gotten the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners to look more seriously at misconduct by election judges.
“And in the financial crimes unit, in May we indicted a corporation and its principal owner that fraudulently claimed that they had minority subcontractors when they bid and took on work for the Board of Education for the removal of asbestos. No one ever used that criminal law before.
“O’Connor obviously isn’t in touch with what’s going on. We have significantly reduced expenditures on “pinstripe patronage’ by bringing most of the work previously handled by private law firms back into the state’s attorney’s office.”
Asked for his view of graft and corruption in the office, O’Connor said, ‘People say that I won’t be tough on corruption because I’m an alderman. Well, who’s better to go after corruption in government than someone who’s been there? I wouldn’t suggest that a former policeman couldn’t go after police corruption. I know policemen and I know they don’t like to be associated with corruption. Most policemen feel, ‘If I’m a partner of someone involved in corruption, I want to get away from him.’ And most elected officials feel the same way. I think that politicians feel that corruption taints everyone and don’t want anything to do with it. My incentive to go after government corruption would be no less than Jack’s incentive to go after police corruption.”
I asked both candidates if some tactic other than prosecution would be a better way to handle first-time drug offenders.
O’Connor criticized O’Malley’s approach to drug problems. “They are focusing their attention on the ultimate end user. The state’s attorney’s office has not been focusing where it should, on the big-time narcotics trafficker. There are no indictments of those people, of the large groups, the rings of drug sellers, lookouts, etcetera. The fact is that drugs are like any other organized-crime business and have to be investigated as such. The charging of the end user just doesn’t make sense. No one can appear to be soft on drugs, but when you have limited resources you should be using those resources to do the long-term investigations to go after the organizations, not the end users. They are beginning to get into it with the use of wiretaps and a few other things, but not nearly enough. It’s amazing to me that Jack formed this unit to go after crime and corruption in the boardrooms while the average citizen is more concerned with gangs and drugs in their neighborhoods.”
O’Malley responded, “My office has worked closely with local, state, and federal agencies to build solid cases against major drug suppliers. We have conducted two major undercover investigations with impressive results–Operation Solid Gold, which involved the first use of the new Illinois wiretap law, and Operation Englewood, which involved the first use of the new Illinois drug conspiracy law. Together, these investigations produced 30 indictments, including those of the very top participants in large-scale illegal drug operations. We have seized $11 million in assets from drug dealers, many times more than had been seized during the comparable period before I took office. These funds accrue to the public treasury, earmarked to defray law enforcement costs.
“Also, we have placed more emphasis on alternatives to incarceration for individual users. We have quadrupled the size of the office’s drug education program, diverting first-time offenders from jail into rehabilitation. But the drug problem continues to grow and drug convictions have increased to a record l4,500 last year. The diversion program has slowed the rate of increase, though.
In the impatient way he often has when he gets excited about an issue, O’Malley added, “But don’t talk to me about working with addicts. Go to the people who need those services who aren’t yet in the criminal justice system. There are plenty of them out there. I haven’t been at all bashful about saying we have to take an entirely new, global look at the whole drug problem. Drug education has to be greatly expanded in the schools. Drug rehabilitation programs have to be available free of charge to anyone who wants it. And those programs shouldn’t be only available to criminal defendants; they ought to be available much earlier than that. I’m pushing for that every chance I get. But don’t tell me not to prosecute. You’re not doing what needs to be done.”
I asked for the candidates’ views on two more broadly philosophical questions, the death penalty and Miranda, a charter on the rights of the accused. On the death penalty, the candidates’ views are virtually identical. O’Malley told me, “I support the death penalty in particularly egregious cases. I describe it as a necessary evil. I don’t know too many people who have experienced what I did as a police officer and in this office who feel that it’s always an inappropriate thing to do. I don’t allow myself to get involved in discussions about whether it’s a general deterrent. I think it’s justifiable as retribution and nothing else matters. In essence, what the criminal law does is supplant the right of people who are the victims of crimes to take their own retribution. I think we have an obligation, since we’ve taken that power away from people, to be cognizant of what they would want to do.”
O’Connor, always thinking as a politician, said, “I feel the death penalty is appropriate in certain cases. I think that if you’re going to be running for this office you need to believe that there is an ultimate penalty for certain types of crimes, and that is the death penalty. The idea of a deterrent effect is not necessarily the goal of the death penalty. It may be a goal, but I think you need to have an ultimate penalty for a given individual.”
The two candidates differ on recent Supreme Court decisions eroding Miranda. O’Malley’s police background emerged as he said, “The changes in Miranda that have come down from the Supreme Court recently are not very important to us compared to the failure of our whole society to come to grips with what to do with people upon conviction. Under the constraints of Miranda that might be imposed by a more liberal court, we are still convicting more people than we know what to do with. That’s the most important problem. Instead of worrying about Miranda, we need to be worrying about preventing crime and what to do about sanctions [punishment], which means more money devoted to prisons, to rehabilitation projects.
“But the bottom line on Miranda is that we adhere to it, so much so that we go to the scene at the police station when someone is going to confess to make sure that everything is done properly.”
O’Connor takes a more conventionally liberal view. “As the right against self-incrimination, Miranda has been eroded through a series of cases because the country has been moving further and further to the right. I think the state’s attorney has to protect the rights of victims, but also has to protect the rights of criminals in order to maintain the integrity of the system. In the political context, you don’t want to appear that you’re soft on crime, but you also have to understand your job and that job is to represent all the people in the system and that includes the perpetrators of crime as well as the victims.
“I come from representing police officers, and a lot of people will think, ‘Well, there’s a right-wing guy, a guy who’s not going to want the Miranda.’ But the first thing we did was to ensure that our client’s rights had been protected. So anyone who has practiced criminal law on the defense side has a great respect for the Miranda warnings. My belief is that the erosion of the doctrine has been brought about on cases that were extreme, and now the courts have gone too far and I think you’re going to see further and further erosion. I don’t see the pendulum swinging back to a more evenhanded approach to criminal justice.”
I asked the candidates what they believe to be the most important task of the state’s attorney. O’Malley replied, “To set a tone in the office that’s perceived by the public as an office that is incorruptible and absolutely uninfluenced by politics. People in Chicago are skeptical about that–I think it was one of the reasons I was able to win that election. I don’t think the average person wants to see a person who is entrenched in politics as a state’s attorney.
“The other thing is, because the system is so big, we have to have internal systems of accountability. We’ve done that. For instance, the criminal division has to submit in writing every day a report of the day’s activity. That was unheard of before I got here. Ken Gillis and I read them every day. And they have turned out to be a very useful tool.”
Once again, O’Connor began with a generality. “You have to cover a lot of the bases. If you look at what Jack is doing, you wonder. The first thing he did was establish this white-collar crime unit. That would be one of my last priorities. That is probably the key difference between Jack and me. The state’s attorney’s office is not the U.S. attorney. It does not have unlimited resources, unlimited investigative resources. It is the everyday average citizen’s first line of defense against crime, and that’s where the focus ought to be.”
O’Connor again focused on the attorneys in the office. “Another thing that has to be done,” he said, “is to revise the whole reward system. Now the best attorneys are moved up to administration and supervision. Your best trial attorneys are taken out of the courts. You need to change that focus to find ways to reward the good people with promotions and better pay but with assignments that utilize their skills as attorneys instead of just making them supervisors. You also need to provide more training. Right now there is no training done in that office. It just takes a little ingenuity to find other ways of doing things.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.