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Chicago city officials filed a lawsuit against Jussie Smollett on Thursday in a bid to recoup the costs of investigating a racist, anti-gay attack that authorities say was orchestrated by the Empire actor as a publicity stunt.
The civil lawsuit, filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County, is the latest volley in a legal battle that shows no signs of abating since Smollett reported that masked men beat him up on Jan. 29 in Chicago, shouting slurs and wrapping a rope around his neck.
The city’s resolve to take Smollett to civil court follows a surprising decision by prosecutors in March to drop all criminal charges accusing the actor of staging the incident, saying they believed they could prove the charges but that it wasn’t worth the time and expense.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel denounced the decision as “a whitewash of justice,” and others criticized the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office for not requiring an apology and an admission of guilt from Smollett as a condition for tossing the case.
The suit comes after Smollett refused a demand that he pay back the $130,000 the police department expended on overtime as it sought to verify Smollett’s account, including that his attackers yelled slogans supportive of President Donald Trump.
The lawsuit doesn’t include a specific monetary figure, but suggests the amount the city will seek from Smollett will be higher than the $130,000.
Smollett, who is black and gay, maintains he has told the truth from the beginning. A message left for a spokeswoman for Smollett’s legal team wasn’t immediately returned Thursday evening.
Smollett lawyer Mark Geragos said in a letter to the city last week that claims the actor made the entire thing up were “defamatory,” accusing Chicago of trying to “harass” Smollett and pointing to the dismissal of charges as proof he is innocent.
Unless the case is settled beforehand, the lawsuit would eventually go before a jury, which would have to decide if the city or Smollett is right.
Under the city code, Chicago could triple the amount the city originally demanded that Smollett pay to more than $390,000. If he refuses to pay after a verdict in the city’s favor, his bank accounts could be frozen.
Smollett admitted no wrongdoing, but agreed to do some community service before charges were dropped. He also agreed to forfeit $10,000 in bond money, which the city could use against him in the civil case as an implied admission of guilt.
Evidence sealed in the criminal case could be unsealed in the civil case and be presented at trial. Smollett could also be required to sit for depositions, forcing him for the first time to explain evidence that the city says shows he was lying.
To the city’s advantage, the threshold for proof will be lower than in criminal court. The city won’t have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt Smollett staged the attack in civil court, only that it’s more likely true than not true that he did.
Among the risks for the city is that the civil litigation could end up costing far more in legal bills than it could ever hope to get from Smollett.
It’s also unclear if Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot is onboard with the Emanuel administration’s determination to keep legal pressure on Smollett. Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who will be Chicago’s first black female mayor when she is sworn in on May 20, has indicated only that the public deserves a better explanation for why the criminal charges against Smollett were dropped.
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