CHICAGO — Outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration says it has gone to court to try to force Jussie Smollett to pay Chicago back for an alleged hate crime hoax even though Cook County prosecutors dropped all charges against the “Empire” actor.
The lawsuit, filed late Thursday in Circuit Court, comes after Smollett failed to pony up $130,106 by a deadline imposed by the city to cover the cost of the police overtime hours expended in the investigation into his allegations.
The upcoming battle in civil court promises in many ways to mirror the criminal charges against Smollett that were abruptly dismissed by prosecutors last month. Both center on the same question: Did Smollett stage a physical assault on himself, claiming his attackers shouted racial and homophobic slurs?
The suit did not specify the damages that the city will seek, but the city said that more than two dozen Chicago police officers and detectives worked a combined 1,836 hours of overtime over at least two weeks while investigating Smollett’s claims.
A defiant letter sent last week by Smollett’s lawyer warned the city against suing him, saying the actor “will not be intimidated into paying the demanded sum.”
In a brief statement issued Thursday, the city’s Law Department said the lawsuit against Smollett “pursues the full measure of damages allowed under the city’s ordinance forbidding false statements. The city declined further comment.
Smollett, who is African-American and openly gay, found himself at the center of an international media firestorm after he reported being the victim of a Jan. 29 attack by two people who shouted the slurs, hit him and wrapped a noose around his neck.
Police initially treated the incident as a hate crime, but their focus turned to Smollett after two brothers who were alleged to have been his attackers told detectives that Smollett had paid them $3,500 to stage the attack, with a promise of an additional $500 later.
In a stunning about-face last month, however, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office dropped the 16-count indictment against Smollett at an unannounced court hearing March 26.
The city’s 12-page lawsuit detailed the evidence gathered by police that led to the disorderly conduct charges against Smollett. It largely mirrored what prosecutors had alleged at Smollett’s bond hearing in late February — that he had recruited brothers Abel and Ola Osundairo to carry out the hoax.
The suit emphasized that an extensive investigation by police relied on interviews, videos from police and private surveillance cameras, bank records and a store receipt to identify the two brothers’ involvement.
The suit noted that police found surveillance footage of the brothers waiting near the scene of the attack in the Streeterville neighborhood where Smollett resided. During a February interview on “Good Morning America,” Smollett identified the people caught on camera as definitely his attackers, according to the suit.
On the same day the interview aired, Chicago police confronted Smollett with their finding that the people he had identified as his assailants were, in fact, the Osundairo brothers. The suit said Abel had worked with Smollett on “Empire,” the two “socialized and exercised together” and that Smollett “occasionally asked for Abel’s assistance in obtaining recreational drugs.”
Smollett told police that “his only relationship” with the brothers was as trainers and social acquaintances, and he denied they could have been his attackers, the suit revealed.
Smollett’s legal team had no comment Wednesday evening on the expected lawsuit. But celebrity attorney Mark Geragos has previously vowed a vigorous defense, warning that Emanuel, police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and other key players would be required to give sworn testimony.
The sudden dismissal of the charges by Foxx’s office caught Chicago police brass by surprise and brought swift condemnation. Johnson said Smollett’s lies had dragged “Chicago’s reputation through the mud,” while Emanuel called the dismissal of the charges a “whitewash of justice.”
Foxx, the first African-American woman elected Cook County state’s attorney on a reform platform in late 2016, has come under withering criticism, including calls for her resignation by the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police. Black community leaders have rallied to her support.
In a letter last week, Geragos said the mayor and superintendent owed Smollett the apology “for dragging an innocent man’s character through the mud.”
Geragos accused Emanuel of “acting literally unhinged” in his criticism of Smollett, saying the investigation was fatally flawed and was dropped because it was “going to become embarrassing.”
Even in Circuit Court, with its lower standard of proof than in criminal trials, the city won’t be able to prove that Smollett staged the attack, Geragos wrote.