Anita Alvarez sounds off | Bleader

Anita Alvarez sounds off

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Anita Alvarez
  • Anita Alvarez
Anita Alvarez doesn’t have to campaign for reelection. The Cook County state’s attorney doesn’t have an opponent in the March 20 Democratic primary, and so far neither the Republicans nor the Greens have slated anyone for the fall.

“I’d like to think it’s because I’m doing the best job I can,” Alvarez says.

She doesn’t mention that she's infuriated a number of elected officials, journalists, and other citizens in her first term. Their chief complaint is that she's done little to investigate police abuse and wrongful convictions—and, worse, has gone after those who have.

So where are the opponents? The politicians who’ve ripped her openly were unable to convince Democratic Party leaders not to stick with Alvarez. When you’ve got an incumbent who isn’t asking for money or snooping into the heavy hitters, why mess around?

But Alvarez is on the campaign trail anyway—holding fundraisers, stopping by luncheons put on by civic groups, hitting black churches on Sunday mornings, trying to show them the papers have it wrong.

Last weekend she paid a visit to Sweet Holy Spirit Church in South Chicago. Presided over by the influential Bishop Larry Trotter, it’s a former warehouse converted into a sanctuary that seats hundreds of worshipers—it’s always packed, and it's always rocking. I was invited to meet up with her.

Alvarez arrived a few minutes after the second service had begun. She said she’d just ducked out of a meeting at her own church for her daughters’ confirmation. “I asked one of the dads, ‘Can you sign in for me?’”

She was ushered to the front row, where she sat through several musical numbers and baptisms, mostly expressionless except for tapping her toes. Then Bishop Trotter called her to the pulpit. “I’ve wanted Anita Alvarez to come and speak to us,” he said. “She has represented us well and will continue to represent us.”

The state’s attorney stepped cautiously onstage. Even as she returned the compliment she spoke in a firm, businesslike tone. “If you’re having a bad day, just come here," she said. "It will lift your spirits.”

Alvarez went on to highlight some of her accomplishments since being elected in 2008: opening neighborhood offices, leading efforts to confront human trafficking, and launching a “deferred prosecution” program that helps nonviolent first-time offenders avoid felony charges and prison time. Only 40 people have completed the program so far—a fraction of a fraction of the 30,000 felony cases handled by her office each year—but Alvarez promised to expand it.

“I enjoy being Cook County state’s attorney and appreciate your support,” she told them. “Keep me in your prayers so God will continue to guide me.” She left to spirited applause.

I followed Alvarez to the banquet hall that adjoins the sanctuary, where we were told we could talk as church staff set up for a wedding. We were joined by Sally Daly, her spokeswoman and adviser.

Before we started the interview, a fit-looking man of about 45 hurried over, a ring of keys jingling from his belt. He said he was glad to hear about the deferred prosecution program. “I got a second chance, and now I’m a building engineer here,” he said, shaking her arm vigorously. “You’ve got my vote.”

Alvarez turned to me as he departed. “I swear we didn’t set that up.”

"It actually happens a lot," Daly said.

Alvarez then continued the pitch she'd made to the congregation. She said she’s proud of her work to disrupt pimps and gangs, but has a long list of other things she’d like to do, such as getting legislation passed in Springfield that would let her prosecute gang leaders for things their underlings do. “We can do a good job with the foot soldiers, but the guys calling the shots, we haven’t been able to get them.”

She also expressed frustration that budget pressures had forced her to cut staff. Yet Alvarez showed little enthusiasm for revamping policies that clog the court system with the lowest level of nonviolent drug offenders—people caught with small amounts of marijuana. (For more on that, check this out.)

Alvarez argued that she's fulfilled a promise to open up the office. That's an acknowledgement that for decades critics have seen the prosecutor’s office as a closed-door insiders’ operation—the place that, at best, failed for years to investigate police torture.

But to this day, even routine information—data showing the types of cases prosecuted with its 860 attorneys and $117 million annual budget—is hard to come by. Critics say that, unlike many other government agencies where transparency has become a buzzword, the state’s attorney’s office still operates with a bunker mentality. The office issues no operational reports and regularly resists requests to share data.

When I brought this up, Alvarez said she’d never considered compiling reports and probably won’t, since she’s had to make cuts to her administrative staff. She insisted that the office is as transparent as it can be. I asked her what grade she deserved.

She thought about it before answering. “Despite what the media wants to see and hear, there are a number of things we just can’t give you because of grand juries and stuff. So in the media’s eyes, they’d probably give us a D or an F. But I think we do the best job we can." She looked across the table. "Sally, what would you give us?”

“A 'B,'” Daly said. “I think we do the best we can. You know, we really don't hear much criticism."

And what critics there are have bad information. For instance, said Alvarez, it was a “misconception” that she'd gone after Northwestern students investigating wrongful convictions. In fact, the evidence compiled by the students was often suspect, Alvarez said. She stressed that Northwestern parted ways with David Protess, the professor who oversaw their work.

“We tore those cases apart to see if there was any truth to them,” she said. “I think it was unfortunate that it was portrayed as me going after the students, and David Protess turned it into that and I’m not afraid to say so.”

Alvarez said her office continues to devote resources to wrongful conviction cases, though it wasn't until last month that she made a specific commitment.

And then there's the Koschman mess. That's the ongoing story, uncovered by Tim Novak of the Sun-Times, about how clout has seemingly marred the investigation into a suspicious death involving a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. To many of us, it looks like she and other authorities have used every excuse and technicality to avoid getting to the bottom of the matter.

This, she informed me, was outrageous.

“I find it insulting,” she said. “I’m not like this with Mayor Daley”—she held up her hand to show her fingers twisted together—“nor do I want to put my law license on the line for anyone. You’re only reading the Sun-Times. That’s the way it’s been reported. Yes, this young man died. You can say he was killed, but you’ve got to look at the evidence. [Daley's nephew] was not identified in a lineup, for one thing. That’s a fatal flaw for a prosecutor.”

“I hope there will be a time when the truth will come out,” she continued. “But I said there would be no politics in this. It wouldn’t be right for me to bring charges based on one reporter’s obsession.”

The state’s attorney was no more apologetic for her fight with civil liberty advocates over eavesdropping rules. Alvarez was blasted for prosecuting a woman in 2010 who claimed to have taped an officer because he was harassing her. She's also opposed changing the state eavesdropping law to allow citizens to record officers in public without their consent. Alvarez says any amendments should also make it easier for police to record citizens.

“If you’re going to allow the average citizen to tape the police officer, the police officer should have one-party consent,” she said.

Alvarez's defense of the law-and-order establishment has been so unrelenting that it's widely rumored she's cutting a deal to move up the food chain. Most versions have her angling for an appointment to the federal bench.

“I have never put my name in,” she said. “I will be here for the next four years.”

She glanced at Daly. “Sally wants me to say more.”

Daly looked impatient. They had been over this. “You never know what will come along,” Daly reminded her. “Never say never.”

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