Allen: prosecutor's office mismanaged

Ald. Tom Allen says the Cook County State's Attorney's office is poorly managed, and he wants to take over for retiring incumbent Richard Devine.

As an assistant public defender for 10 years, and then as a private lawyer, Allen defended clients against Cook County prosecutors. He went on to become an assistant to 38th Ward Alderman Thomas Cullerton, and he was appointed to fill the Cullerton's seat by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1993. He has since been re-elected four times.

Tom Allen.

Allen has been a vocal critic of the State's Attorney's handling of controversial police commander Jon Burge, who was accused of torturing suspects.

Allen served as defense attorney for some of those suspects.

Allen has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police and 34 other labor unions. He has also received endorsements from Congressman Rahm Emanuel, 3 state senators, 6 state representatives, and 16 fellow city council members.

Alderman Tom Allen is one of six candidates for Cook County State's Attorney in the Democratic primary on February 5th. He recently sat down for a phone interview with Chi-Town Daily News:

Q. Your previous criminal law experience was as a public defender. What will you have to do to adjust to the prosecution mindset?

The prosecution mindset is the criminal justice system and protecting people... I know the criminal justice system inside out.

And I've got a perspective on what is broken in the criminal justice system that I think is quite obvious. I represented a kid in 1987 ... on a murder case, and he was 16 years old. The fellow's name was Omar Saunders, and he was wrongfully convicted. 17 years later he was freed after [they] cleared him.

The State's Attorney's Office put on an expert witness as part of their prosecution... That expert witness testified about the rape kit, withheld documents from me as the defense lawyer, gave false testimony, and as a result this kid was wrongfully convicted. So 17 years later he was freed, and as of this date the State's Attorney's Office has never attempted to prosecute that crime lab technician who was also responsible for six other wrongful convictions.

You know, there's no mystical powers that fall from the sky and land on someone and make them a prosecutor. It's your life experience, it's your professional experience and what's in your character. I think that being a career prosecutor as they're talking about, they've gotten us into the mess that we're in and now they want to clean up the mess that they created.

Q. The State's Attorney's office has 900 prosecutors and their support staff. How do you propose to meet the challenges of managing an organization far larger than you've ever been in charge of? Or is that a mistake to say?

No, it's not a mistake. Well it is in a weird way. I've been in charge of an organization or in charge of managing 60,000 people that I represent on a daily basis, 24/7. Every day that I get up I'm responsible for managing, taking care of the ward, running the service operation, protecting the safety of my neighbors and the community, and sort of managing 60000 people on a daily basis, that's the way I look at it.

And I'll tell you what, I don't think that the people that are managing this office deserve another crack at it because the morale in that office is at an all time low. The police don't trust the office, the office doesn't trust the police, the citizens don't trust anybody, and it all lands at the doorstep of the leadership or lack of leadership of this office.

I mean, this criminal justice system in Cook County is on life support and now Dick Devine and his two assistants want to perform surgery. Well, I think we need to bring in someone that would be a fresh start and someone that didn't create the mess. They're tring to fix the mess that they created, and I think that they don't have the wherewithal to do it, and they haven't shown the courage or the toughness to stand up and give the citizens some conficence and trust in this office.

Q. You've said in the past that the State's Attorney's Office should be more creative in pursuing charges against former police command John Burge. What will you do when it's your job?

Well, I'll get a posse together and go after him. I'll investigate his background, what he's done in the time since he left the police department, whether there've been coverups---ongoing conspiracy to cover up the crimes---and I will give it the old college try. They've done nothing.

So I'll give it an effort. That's something they haven't done. I don't like---I don't accept the notion that they can't create or fashion some legal theory to prosecute a serial torturer of 200 African-American men. I don't think the citizens of Cook County should accept that either. It's easy to say you can't do it when you haven't tried.

Q. County Commissioner Larry Suffredin [also running for State's Attorney] has said he wants to create a strike force to prosecute police and political corruption. What are your plans for changing the way the State's Attorney's office approaches these issues?

Well, I think first of all County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, when he creates that strike force, he should have them start investigating the people he lobbies for. That'd be the first start. Like the mobster connection that we've just read about in the paper today. So maybe he could try that out, and he could be the first test case for his new strike task force.

Here's the deal: The State's Attorney's Office, they treat the criminals on the street differently than they treat criminals wearing a suit and a tie. It's as if they have hung a sign on their door---"gone fishin'." Well, I think it's time to take that sign down and put the sign on "open for business".

I think that "corruption" is the word that the media and writers use, but really when you strip it away, it's nothing more than being a common criminal. And there's no reason that there should be some distinction in either the title that you give that crime or the way you approach it.

Someone who steals money from the public till or someone who extorts or commits bribery or overbills--any of those--those are crimes, and they have to go after him with the same energy that they should go after street crime. And I don't think they should be calling it "corruption," they should just call it "common criminal" and treat him like common criminals. They need to do more.

And the two people who run this office say all these things they're gonna do better, and they need more of this, and they need to change this approach, and they've been there for 10 years---collectively, the two of them for 40 years---so talk about "Johnny come lately."

Q. In November of 2006, Dick Devine's office released a study that claimed that assistant state's attorneys made $9000 less than public defenders with similar experience and length of employment. Is that a problem, and if so, what do you plan to do about it?

Well there should be parity in both sides of the criminal justice system in Cook County. And my suggestion to those assistant state's attorneys is that they---just like anybody in the outside world does who's not getting fair pay---they should join together, as all working men and women do, and organize and bargain as a group. I think they would be much more effective that way, and they would see their salaries rise commensurate with their counterparts in the criminal justice system.

Q. You say "organize and bargain as group." I assume you mean as a union?

Yeah, that's what anybody that wants to get better wages, better benefits, and better working conditions---certainly you have an advantage if your power then is equal to your employer when you have a big group of numbers that you're dealing with collectively. So I would think that's one option. The other option is just to keep reminding the public how important these prosecutors are to keeping everybody safe.

Q. How do you plan to work around the 1995 Illinois Supreme Court ruling that said ASA's can't unionize?

You know what? A Supreme Court ruling is just like---the John Burge ruling is just like---rulings on strict liability and personal injury law: They change. They change by the decade, they change by the different courts that are hearing them. That Supreme Court ruling came about as a result of Jack O'Malley objecting and refusing to recognize the union. Well, if these people organize and somehow come together and form a collective bargaining unit, I'm not going to stand in their way.

Q. What three things do you want to do as state's attorney that aren't being done now?

Prosecute illegal gun trafficking. Create a unit in that office to track guns back to their source. That does not exist right now. There's a narcotics unit, there's a gang crimes unit. A narcotics unit is based on prosecutorial principle 101: When you find narcotics you try it to its source. They need to apply that same principle when they're dealing with illegal guns on the street.

When you make a narcotics arrest and you prosecute that case, they're always trying to find out where the supplier is. However on a gun case---on a gun arrest---that question never gets posed. So we need to do that because right now the level of illegal gun trafficking on the streets is off the charts.

Gang-bangers and drug dealers and 15-year old kids know where to find illegal handguns on the streets of Chicago and in the streets of our suburbs of Chicago ... Criminals used to toss a gun, get rid of them after they committed a crime, they're not. They just keep circulating them into the system.

If we reach back and start putting a little heat on the offenders who get caught with guns and start doing some interrogation and probing, we can find out where these guns are coming from and who's trading them. And the citizens on the street, we need help from them.

So I propose we put up a 24-hour hotline that they can call in the location of any guns they see directly to my office. No questions asked, we won't take names, and our illegal gun trafficking unit would try to reach out to other agencies to make it a multi-jurisdictional agency: the federal government, the FBI, the state police, the DEA, ATF, and that way we'd be able to go across state lines because some of these -- the two states that are near us that have real lax gun laws are bringing in a lot of these illegal guns, and those are Indiana and Mississippi. So that would be probably one of my top priorities.

Secondly, we need to do a better job of protecting seniors and protecting children. I'd create a senior fraud unit, which does not exist right now. People are being conned, these older folks -- who are alone in life at the end of their life -- are being conned by scam artists. Some have gone so far as to have taken possession of their property and their house. They target someone that doesn't have friends, that doesn't have family, and the State's Attorney's Office is doing nothing about it.

And the third component there being protecting the kids -- children -- from sexual predators. To give you an example there's---the Daily Herald did a study last September I believe or August of '07 and they identified 865 sex offenders in Illinois---excuse me, in Cook County---that were not registered and that no one knew where they're at, that 20% of the total number in Cook County were unaccounted for and the State's Attorney's Office is doing nothing to protect us from those sex offenders that are lurking out there.

I've got a plan for that: To put GPS technology in place where 18 other states have done it. And we're way behind. The State's Attorney's Office has done nothing to try to get a handle on this problem. I would implement GPS technology to put ankle bracelets on these people so you could track them day by day, minute by minute, and they would never get lost so you'd have 100% accountability as to these sex offenders and keeping them away from our kids.

Q. If you win, then the mayor, the police superintendent, and the State's Attorney will all be white. Do you think that minorities will trust that they will receive justice?

I think the minorities aren't getting justice now. I'll tell you it doesn't matter what the racial component of the eventual leader of this office is. What's in our heart and what their track record is [important].

I've been in the Cook County criminal justice system representing minorities for 10 years, I know where this thing has gone bad, and I also have been able to garner respect. I have the ability to work with people, and I've proven that in government, and I've proven that by running and being basically the city manager of 60,000 people for 14 or 15 years, being re-elected each time by people wanting to send me back to this job.

I think I certainly have a very hands-on record of being fair and honest and straightforward. But to those people I would say this: You know what you've got now is a train wreck and the people waiting in the wings to try to get this train back on the tracks, two of them are part of the problem -- run the office for 20 years -- one other guy is a lobbiest who takes money from anybody who will pay him, and the other guys don't have the experience.

So, the voters will, if they're careful to read the information and tune into this race -- the residents in minority neighborhoods or whatever, they are rightly concerned because this office has kind of -- the approval rating in this office among citizens is probably lower than George Bush's ratings right now.

Q. The State's Attorney's office needs good police work to prosecute cases. What would you tell incoming Superintendent Jody Weis are the most important changes he can make to the police department to improve the way cases are brought to the State's Attorney's office?

We need to have -- I've touched on this already -- there is a crisis of distrust and a lack of confidence from the citizens, so I think it all stems from the people on the street -- the citizens. And the reason that's present is because this office has ignored the facts of the criminal justice system in Cook County in the last 20 years, and that is dozens of wrongful convictions, imprisoning people, innocent people, a broken death penalty system that's still not fixed, a string of prosecutorial misconduct that the Supreme Court talked about in the year 2003 in one of their opinions, a pattern of introducing false confessions against people.

So what you got on the street is this: Citizens are looking over there at 26th and California and they're seeing that the State's Attorney's Office prosecutes criminals but then when someone gets railroaded by false expert testimony -- such as happened on my case, a fellow I represented -- that they don't prosecute someone who abuses the foundation of the criminal justice system. So, what has to happen is that really the State's Attorney's Office has to get their act together, and they have to prove to the citizens that they are fair and that they are going to prosecute wrongdoing.

So really the police department is not the problem.

Q. The State's Attorney's office has an old case tracking system and still does a lot of processing on paper. What's your technology plan for the office?

Well, their technology is old and stale, and it pretty much reflects the mentality and leadership in that office under Dick Devine and his top two assistants, Miss Alvarez and Mr. Milan. It doesn't surprise me. I mean, they're living in the stone ages, and that just goes to show you that they don't have a plan, they don't have any recognition of that problem.

I mean, for a law office with that many people to be still playing with index cards is---I don't think you'd find anything like that in Cook County or in the state of Illinois. So the answer is just change it, do something.

I mean, they obviously don't think it's important to keep track of what's going on and that's maybe why we got cases that are festering for eight years -- seven and eight years -- you know, guys are in Cook County jail waiting for trial for eight years because they can't get their act together and try the case.