County commissioner seeking post as top prosecutor

County Commissioner and state's attorney candidate Larry Suffredin / Photo by Ignacio Madrid

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin began his legal career in the Cook County courthouses 30 years ago.

Now he is seeking to succeed retiring state's attorney Richard Devine as the top prosecutor there.

A lifelong resident of Cook County, Suffredin believes his varied legal experience, including eight years teaching trial advocacy at John Marshall Law School, makes him the best candidate for the job.

Re-elected to a second term in 2006, Suffredin, a partner at the Shefsky & Froelich law firm, has served on the Cook County commission since 2002, representing the 13th district.

He also serves as the chair of Harbor Quest, Inc., and on the board of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence.

Recently he sat down with the Chi-Town Daily News to discuss what he would do as state's attorney.

Q. You've said that state's attorney Dick Divine has not done enough to fight public corruption, to what do you attribute that shortcoming?

A. Well, I think that what he did was let himself be overwhelmed by the 58,000 cases that come through the door each year. can determine to deal with what they give you or you can determine to shape an agenda. And I think he decided that he needed to just deal with what the police brought to him. Now, I see this election as an opportunity to change the status quo. I've been telling the story about Jerry Butler who's my seatmate on the county board. And I go in about two months ago over to the county jail on a Monday night just to see who comes in the county jail and how they're processed - you know, just as county commissioners, we wanted to go. (There were) 325 people coming in on a Monday. I couldn't count on both hands those that weren't African-American... only one old guy... The rest were just kids. I mean they were under 30, probably under 25 years of age.

You sit there and say, 'there's something wrong with a system when that's what they bring into the county jail.' That means those are the cases they're about. They can't be the only people in this society committing crimes.

What happened with Dick is he got so overwhelmed with all those cases that were coming in everyday and that's what he focused on. He didn't get to analyze the cases, to see if in fact there were patterns. You know, they talk about the (Chicago Police) SOS group that was dissolved. Well, if people had been analyzing those police reports, they would have noticed the pattern of these guys only arresting certain drug dealers, certain gang members, not showing up on certain cases. There were a whole number of things that should have jumped out at you, but nobody was doing that kind of an analysis.

What I want to do is take on corruption and I've put together what I call my Public Corruption Strike Force. I want to bring in as the head of it a lawyer who is not part of the system. I hopefully (can) find an experienced prosecutor from another jurisdiction from one of the U.S. Attorney's offices, somewhat similar to what happened with the U.S. Attorney here - where Patrick Fitzgerald comes to us from New York - so, somebody who has no relationships. Then, I want the investigators who work in this department to be investigators who have not been part of any of the police departments that make up our area, because the things that I want them to investigate are elected officials, appointed officials, vendors, and police corruption. Those four things all have people who interact, and you can't have investigations done by people who used to work with somebody, or know somebody, or their mother knows somebody, or their wife knows somebody.

One of the things I want to do is audit police reports. You know, you can say 'how do you deal with profiling?' Well, you can wait until the Chicago Police gives you the profiling statistics, or you can look at police reports and say 'Now wait a minute. Let's look at who these people are. This isn't right.'

So that's my answer to Dick. I think that he felt that he should just deal with what they gave him rather than trying to go out and find other things. He stopped a lot of the community outreach. He stopped a lot of the victims' assistance programs. You know, the things he cut back on were the things where you reached out and people would give you input on what was going on.

Q. Describe the kinds of cases that you've handled as an attorney that will provide useful experience in this role.

A. Well, I've tried 136 juries to verdict, so I've probably tried 70 murder cases. I've done every kind of a case in the federal and the state system. I've been to the U.S. Supreme Court. I've been to the Illinois Supreme Court. I think that rather than individual cases's the cumulative efforts of my legal career. I've taught in law school for almost 10 years. It's all of those experiences which hone my belief that we need to strive for justice - and this is the justice office for Cook County, and that's something that you can't forget - and that you've got to be able to communicate and reach out to communities and give them confidence that you're doing the right thing to make them safer.

I believe as I look at Cook County, there's almost 150 separate and distinct communities, neighborhoods, wards, cities, (and) villages that make up this county. My experience has been as I campaign, that the majority of people do not feel that justice is equal, that decisions made in Winnetka are the same as made in Robbins, that decisions made in Maywood are the same as made in Lawndale or South Chicago. One of the things I think I've got to strive for if I'm fortunate enough to win this office, is to go out and communicate to people the confidence in the decisions that are being made.

One of the other things that I find very disturbing is that there are programs that give people a break, but they only exist in certain courthouses. There's one court at 26th Street, Judge Fox, where you can get special probation for drug cases. Well, if you are fortunate enough to get your case into that courtroom, you get that break. But if you're not, then who knows what happens?

We had this recent study that shows African-Americans getting five times greater drug sentences than non-African-Americans. Now that doesn't make any sense.

You've got juvenile issues. I've been pushing for a number of years to change the juvenile jurisdiction from the 17th birthday to the 18th birthday. I really believe that that year ... these are still kids, 17 to 18. They are still doing stupid things. But if you're an adult, a stupid thing can be a felony conviction. You might get probation; you might not go to the penitentiary. But a felony conviction ruins you from doing just about anything else for the rest of your life. I really believe that we've got to expand the juvenile court jurisdiction to try to keep kids from becoming career criminals and being on the escalator to the penitentiary.

The other thing I really believe is I've got to get assistant state's attorneys out of the courthouses and into the community, not only to listen to people as to are they telling us it's guns, gangs and drugs that are the problem or is it environmental issues, is it payday loans, is it mortgage predators?

We also need to get them into the schools, and I've been saying as low as fourth grade. Because if you watch all of the arrests for who's the trigger person on these murders that are happening around town, they're all young kids because the gang-bangers are giving them the guns, figuring they'll get a lesser sentence because they're not going to be tried as an adult or they're going to get some break. Well, we've got to go in and tell those kids what happens if you are convicted.

You know, so often, these arrests happen and nobody knows what the outcome of the arrests are. And these gang-bangers are heroes to some of these young kids. Well, we've got to go and tell them that they're not heroes and there's consequences to behavior. I really think we need to be telling them what's happening in the criminal courts building, because when somebody gets arrested, you maybe get a story that big (indicating a tiny space with his fingers.).  When somebody's sentenced, you may get a story that big (smaller) or there's nothing. So nobody knows what the effect of a crime is.

Q. You talked about your 136 juries to verdict, 70 murder cases, but none prosecuted, correct?

A. None prosecuted.

Q. How would you compensate for your lack of prosecutorial experience?

A. Well, two of my supporters are Tom Sullivan and John Schmidt. Tom Sullivan was appointed the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and had never prosecuted a case, but had tried all kinds of cases. He told me, "Larry, people will argue, 'you've never been a prosecutor. You don't know how to do it.'" I know how to try a case. I know how to get to work in a courtroom. I know how to motivate other lawyers to work. I do that here at our firm (Shefsky & Froelich). The key thing is that this job is to be the leader of 950 lawyers. It is to be the person who motivates them, gives them resources, and makes sure that they have clear standards to follow. Never having prosecuted a case doesn't mean anything because I've been the plaintiff in a case. I've met burdens of proof in cases. I had the legal experience to do it. Tom Sullivan became the U.S. Attorney and those four years, people say, were just a renaissance.

John Schmidt - never a prosecutor, appointed deputy attorney general of the United States by President (Bill) Clinton. He's the one who got more police into our communities. I mean, he did a number of things, and again people said, "Oh, he's a corporate lawyer. He doesn't have the experience."

I understand the criminal system. You know, the day I got out of the Air Force, I started at 26th street in 1973. I know both the federal and the state system. Prosecuting a case isn't the key. Those who are prosecutors, they're the reason that the status quo is broken; that we can't continue. People don't want what's been going on. They want something different. So I don't think that being a prosecutor is an issue.

Q. Do you think you'd have to take any extra steps to earn the respect of those in the office or do you think you'd go in with that respect because people want the status quo to change?

A. I think that the public will give me the prestige and the election. If I'm fortunate enough to win the primary and the general election, I will have a mandate from the people to do this. I think that the men and women of this office are by and far some of the finest lawyers around. And I think that they are looking for better opportunities to be able to serve in their communities. Now, one of the issues that has got to change - and it will be my first priority - I've got to get more attorneys of color into this office. You cannot have 7 percent African-American, 4 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian-American attorneys in a county that is as diverse as Cook County.

People who come into courtrooms, people who interact as victims with the office, need to understand and feel confident that there are lawyers in the office that understand them, who understand their cultural backgrounds, who understand their fears. Any victim is fragile. Many victims, especially those who speak another language, who may have documentation problems, are even more fragile. So my first goal, and I just, actually, the reason I was late, is because I was meeting with a lawyer, asking him if I win this to give me help. This is an African-American lawyer who's the head of a large law firm, to help me recruit lawyers who've been out five,10, or15 years.

Because what I've got to do is rather than going back to law schools, and trying to bring baby lawyers in and train them and spend time, I've got to get lawyers who have experience, who have good judgment, into the office immediately and I've got to get them into supervisory roles.

There are no lawyers of color who are the leaders in any of the courtrooms in this system. That makes no sense at all.

Q. Some of your opponents have suggested that your ties to gaming present a conflict. Your take?

A. You know people who don't want to look at their own records try to send people in a different direction. Here's how I became a gaming lawyer, and the story is probably worth you knowing. (A) friend of mine, Governor Mel Carnahan, who died later in a plane crash, you may remember he was running for the U.S. Senate against John Ashcroft and he was killed in a plane crash in Missouri. He was elected governor in 1992. He and I knew each other. He knew I had an expertise in being able to negotiate legislative deals, and that I had an expertise in being able to draft complicated pieces of legislation. So he called me over and he said, "Larry, the day I was elected, there was a referendum passed in Missouri" - and Missouri allows a bill to become law if it passes by referendum - "that created a gaming structure." He said, "everyone tells me it is the weakest gaming law in the nation. I want to hire to you to become my special counsel to rewrite this law with the General Assembly, to then help me set up my gaming board so that Missouri will have a gaming board with the highest ethical standards."

I agreed to do that. I spent two years of my life going back and forth to Jefferson City and St. Louis. I am considered the author of the Missouri Gaming Law. That's how and where I got my expertise. I had to learn all of this. I got it passed. I then had a portion of it declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (by) the judge that former Governor Ashcroft had appointed. I had to get a constitutional amendment for the governor. I got that passed by referendum vote in Missouri. I then helped him set up the Missouri Gaming Board, and people will tell you it's one of the best in the country. My next gaming assignment was representing Mayor Dennis Archer in Detroit. Same scenario. Dennis called me and said, "Larry, Mel Carnahan says you're the guy I should talk to. We have a referendum that's just passed in Detroit that allows Detroit to have three casinos but there is no state law governing it. It has to happen. I want to hire you to go to Lansing. I want you to negotiate with the Republican governor, John Engler, and get us a bill."

People told me it would be impossible to do. I went there. I became the drafter of the Michigan Gaming Law, same basic scenario. I did not set up the state gaming process because I was there representing Mayor Archer and the city of Detroit, but we were able to put it together. Since then, I've been hired by Native American groups. I have represented MGM, one of the major players. I'm currently representing Penn Gaming. They own boats in Aurora, Joliet and Alton. I see that as no conflict at all.

The person who raises that, by the way, is Ms. (Anita) Alvarez, who is the second vice president of the Chicago Bar Association. For 26 years, I've been the legislative counsel to the Chicago Bar Association, going to Springfield, going to Washington, dealing with complex pieces of legislation for lawyers, and she's never once raised any problems with my being the bar association lawyer and then all of a sudden, she's running against me and it's a conflict of interest. So I don't see it as an issue at all.

Q. Tell me why you are best qualified to fill the position of state's attorney.

A. I'm best qualified because the three qualities you need in a state's attorney are independence, and my record on the county board is standing up to John Stroger, standing up to Todd Stroger, fighting for the working people of Cook County, fighting for what I believe is right and trying to get a budget passed to get health care for people. I've not been afraid to be independent of the political process.

Second, you need someone with experience, and I've given you my background. I have the most diverse background of any of the candidates running for this office.

And the third thing, and this is the most important quality you need, somebody who is fair. And I believe my record in representing people, whether you go ask Walter Burnett, the alderman of the 27th ward. He wouldn't be an alderman today if I hadn't represented him and gotten him a pardon because they were going to kick him out of the city council, because as a kid, he got a felony conviction. You know, people who know me, know that I get things done and that I do it in a fair and equal way. And I think that those are the reasons you want me.

I stand for change. That's what this election is about. I've been fortunate to have the support of Congressman (Jesse) Jackson, Congresswoman (Jan) Schakowsky, (Rep.) Karen Yarbrough, Senator Don Harmon in Oak Park. We're putting together a coalition of people: Jesse White, Walter Burnett, Ricky Hendon, Bobbie Steele, going up the west side. In the Hispanic community, Alderman Ricardo Munoz, Commissioner Robert Maldonado, my colleague, and Representative Cynthia Soto. I mean we're putting together a coalition of people who are dedicated to change, and who have the reputation for being people who want to see government work for the people, not against the people.