Cook County’s former top public defender ‘misused confidential information,’ report says

The Cook County inspector general accused former public defender Amy Campanelli of inappropriately sharing data on her office’s youth clients to benefit a nonprofit organization where she later took a job.

Pat Nabong/Chicago Sun-Times

Former Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli speaks during a press conference outside the Richard J. Daley Center, July 22, 2020.

Cook County’s former top public defender Amy Campanelli “misused confidential information” by routinely releasing names and details of children defended by her office, according to a summary of an inspector general’s investigation released Friday.

Campanelli, who was forced out in 2021, made what the IG found were unauthorized — and potentially illegal — disclosures to a non-profit legal services organization where she now works as vice president of restorative justice.

An attorney representing Campanelli told Injustice Watch “it was the policy of the Public Defender’s Office to obtain informed consent from every client, including juvenile clients and their parents …

“The policy was reiterated on numerous occasions to all levels of the attorney staff at the Public Defender’s Office,” said the statement from Stephanie Stewart, who specializes in representing attorneys facing disciplinary investigations.

According to a six-page summary included in the quarterly report of interim Cook County Inspector General Steven E. Cyranoski, Campanelli entered into an information-sharing agreement with Lawndale Christian Legal Center without the required court authorization.

The memorandum of understanding was signed by Campanelli and the legal center’s Executive Director Cliff Nellis in December 2020 in an effort to enroll as many as 40 clients per month in a study.

Campanelli, who declined to cooperate with investigators, also served on an advisory board for the center, which was in jeopardy of losing funding for the study, the IG report says.

Nellis told Injustice Watch his organization obtained written consent from everyone who participated in the study, regardless of the public defender’s office’s practices. He said his intent was to examine whether his programs help vulnerable people.

He added Campanelli was hired later because they shared goals. “This was about the vision and the mission of the organization,” he said.

A bald white man in a suit stands next to a spare dark wooden desk in an office.

Pat Nabong/Chicago Sun-Times

Cliff Nellis, executive director of Lawndale Christian Legal Center, a restorative justice-centered organization that provides legal, social, psychological and employment services to young adults in North Lawndale, April 28, 2022.

The report doesn’t name Campanelli or Nellis, but refers to them only as the signatories on the memorandum. Injustice Watch obtained documents, emails and other records through public records requests making clear they are the subjects of the summary report, which identifies Campanelli as “former Official A.”

“Emails reveal that former Official A joined the Legal Center Advisory Board while employed at CCPD and former Official A discussed working for the Legal Center upon leaving CCPD,” the IG report says. “In various emails, the Legal Center Executive Director expressed fear of losing funding if the Legal Center did not receive enough referrals from CCPD.”

Said one email from Nellis to Campanelli: “I’m concerned … that funding for it will stop if we don’t get our numbers up to 40 per month.”

Injustice Watch requests for the full report were denied by both the inspector general and the Public Defender’s office.

The watchdog’s investigation raises questions about Campanelli’s oversight of cases involving young clients, as well as her ongoing and close relationship with the growing non-profit LCLC. The report also suggests Campanelli may have committed a misdemeanor each time she released a child defendant’s name, date of birth, contact information or pending charges.

The Illinois Juvenile Court Act, which governs the confidentiality and dissemination of juvenile records, provides for strict confidentiality, except with a court order. No court order was ever sought, the report says.

“None of the enumerated exceptions would apply to the sharing of confidential juvenile information which was occurring between CCPD and the Legal Center,” the IG report says. A “willful violation” of the Juvenile Court Act “is a Class C Misdemeanor, and each violation is subject to a fine of $1,000,” the report says.

The former presiding judge of the Cook County courts’ juvenile division, Michael Toomin, told IG investigators he believed the information sharing broke state law.

“I would not have agreed to sign it if they had come to me,” Toomin told the investigators.

Neither Toomin nor Chief Judge Timothy Evans were aware of the information-sharing deal, the report says. In addition, the agreement raised concerns among some senior-level officials in the public defender’s office.

The disclosures also violated Cook County personnel rules and its ethics ordinance, the inspector general wrote. The report recommends her office’s actions be referred to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission “regarding the breaches of confidentiality relating to the agreement to share client information with the Legal Center,” as well as beefing up training in the office to avoid future problems.

Campanelli cut a high profile during her six-year term as chief public defender, creating units to handle the cases of immigrants and defendants with mental health problems and unsuccessfully suing the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to give guardians of children in protective custody the right to visit their kids at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She was also named as a defendant in a class-action lawsuit from female employees of her office, who accused Campanelli and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart of failing to stop prisoners from masturbating in front of them. The county settled the suit for $14 million. Campanelli said she did everything she could to protect her lawyers.

Campanelli, who was paid $206,000 in 2020, sought reappointment to a second term, but Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle chose to replace her in spring 2021. Her successor, Sharone Mitchell, ended the information-sharing agreement with LCLC almost immediately after taking office, according to the IG report.

Mitchell told the IG investigators “everyone was quite relieved it stopped” because “nobody (in CCPD) was comfortable” with it, the report says.

Mitchell acknowledged to investigators “the Legal Center used the information provided by CCPD to solicit the juveniles for legal services,” the report says. “The PD further acknowledged that the Legal Center’s grant funding is determined by the number of clients to whom it provides legal services.”

In a statement to Injustice Watch, Mitchell’s spokeswoman said: “One of his first endeavors was to address the multiple ethical concerns raised by attorneys within the Cook County Public Defender’s Office.”

Weeks after Mitchell’s appointment, Campanelli joined the center. Nellis founded the organization in 2010. The organization started small, reporting some $103,000 in revenue in 2011.

By 2021, the organization reported revenue around $5 million, and Lawndale’s board now includes top lawyers from powerhouse firms. The organization in 2018 hired Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer as its vice president of organizational health and management.

Since 2020, LCLC has helped run Chicago’s historically troubled effort to divert youth away from lock-up, and the city has paid the organization about $1.7 million under the contract, city records show. The organization is one of several the city has hired for a revamped diversion program.

Nellis’s political prominence has grown, and former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed him last year to the new Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, which has been leading the search for a new Chicago police superintendent.

Nellis, who lives in the Lawndale neighborhood, said he hopes the evaluation can point to a better way to treat young people in the criminal justice system.

“To me, this is an evaluation that shows we can end mass incarceration,” he said. “We’re saying we can do better for them. We can stop them from getting caught in this revolving door that really substantially hurts Black and brown communities.”

Injustice Watch senior reporter David Jackson contributed to this story.