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Judge finds no bias from Jussie Smollett special prosecutor

A Chicago judge decided Friday to keep a special prosecutor looking into why the state's attorney's office abruptly dismissed charges against actor Jussie Smollett, finding there's "no indication he harbors any bias."

Judge Michael Toomin's decision came after former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb disclosed he co-hosted a 2016 fundraiser for Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx. He also donated $1,000 to her campaign that year.

Foxx's office in March dropped charges accusing the former "Empire" actor of staging a racist, homophobic attack against himself.

In this Aug. 23, 2019 photo, former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb takes the oath of special prosecutor before Judge Michael Toomin, during an status hearing concerning actor Jussie Smollett at the Leighton Criminal Court building, in Chicago. The latest twist in the Jussie Smollett saga is the revelation of a possible conflict of interest by the special prosecutor investigating why prosecutors dropped charges accusing the actor of staging a racist, homophobic attack on himself. Dan Webb disclosed this week he once co-hosted a political fundraiser for a figure central to his investigation, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx. A Cook County judge must now decide if bias or the appearance of bias renders Webb's position untenable.(Antonio Perez Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)

The 74-yar-old Webb said he hadn't initially recalled his contributions to Foxx's campaign.

"This is not even remotely a case that involves a conflict of interest," Webb told the judge, adding that he doesn't know Foxx and doesn't think he has even met her.

The probe includes looking into whether Foxx's calls with a Smollett relative and an ex-aide of former first lady Michelle Obama influenced the decision to drop charges. Foxx recused herself from the case but continued to weigh in.

FILE - In this May 20, 2016 file photo, actor and singer Jussie Smollett attends the "Empire" FYC Event in Los Angeles. A Chicago judge is expected to decide whether to let a former U.S. attorney stay on as special prosecutor examining the dismissal of charges against actor Smollett. The hearing Friday, Oct. 4, 2019, comes after Dan Webb revealed he co-hosted a fundraiser for Kim Foxx during her 2016 run for Chicago’s top prosecutor job. Her office in March abruptly dropped charges accusing Smollett of staging a racist, homophobic attack on himself. (Richard ShotwellInvisionAP, File)

A flyer from the fundraiser Webb included in his court filing this week listed him with two other lawyers as hosts of the event. Webb also included a copy of the signed check he wrote out to "Friends of Foxx." Webb is a Republican, and Foxx a Democrat.

Webb said in his filing that one reason he didn't recall the political fundraiser for Foxx is that they are so common at his high-powered Winston & Strawn law firm. Despite being listed as a host, he said he had "no recollection" of attending the event.

A special prosecutor has the power to reinstate charges if it's determined the original charges against were improperly dropped. Such finding could politically damage Foxx, who in 2016 became Cook County's first black female state's attorney.

FILE - In this Aug. 27, 20119 file photo, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx speaks at a news conference in Chicago. The latest twist in the Jussie Smollett saga is the revelation of a possible conflict of interest by the special prosecutor investigating why prosecutors dropped charges accusing the actor of staging a racist, homophobic attack on himself. Dan Webb disclosed this week he once co-hosted a political fundraiser for a figure central to his investigation, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx. A Cook County judge must now decide if bias or the appearance of bias renders Webb's position untenable. (AP PhotoTeresa Crawford File)

The investigation includes looking into whether Foxx's calls with a Smollett relative and an ex-aide of former first lady Michelle Obama influenced the decision to drop charges. Foxx recused herself before that March decision but continued to weigh in on the case.

There's no indication Foxx or Smollett's lawyers pressed for Webb's replacement. Smollett's attorneys opposed the appointment of any special prosecutor, arguing the case should have stayed closed. Smollett still maintains he was the victim of a real attack in January.

When he announced Webb's appointment in August, Judge Toomin said attorneys from other counties showed little interest in an investigation that, no matter how it plays out, will inevitably spark outrage in some quarters.

FILE - In this March 26, 2019, file photo, actor Jussie Smollett talks to the media before leaving Cook County Court after his charges were dropped, in Chicago. The latest twist in the Jussie Smollett saga is the revelation of a possible conflict of interest by the special prosecutor investigating why prosecutors dropped charges accusing the actor of staging a racist, homophobic attack on himself. Dan Webb disclosed this week he once co-hosted a political fundraiser for a figure central to his investigation, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx. A Cook County judge must now decide if bias or the appearance of bias renders Webb's position untenable. (AP PhotoPaul Beaty, File)

The close-knit nature of Chicago's legal profession, where apparent conflicts of interest arise often, was illustrated by Judge LeRoy Martin Jr.'s decision in May to transfer the decision to appoint a special prosecutor to Toomin because Martin's son works for Foxx.

Webb is a consummate insider who has been sought after by a long list of rich and powerful clients, including tobacco giant Philip Morris and Ukrainian energy oligarch Dymitro Firtash. He represented for Illinois Gov. George Ryan at his corruption trial.

But he also gained a reputation as a fighter against entrenched corruption as U.S. attorney in the 1980s when he played a central role in a watershed corruption investigation called "Operation Greylord," which sent dozens of Chicago judges and lawyers to prison.

He was hired by the city of Chicago to review how city attorneys handle excessive-force lawsuits against police, issuing a report in 2016 that concluded they don't regularly obstruct access to evidence. Many civil rights lawyers sharply criticized Webb's conclusion.

Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mtarm