A major point of contention for some in the Jussie Smollett case is the fact that Michelle Obama‘s former top aide reached out to the local prosecutor, spawning rumors that strings were pulled on the Empire actor’s behalf. That aide is now breaking her silence to explain her side of the story.
According to PEOPLE, Tina Tchen worked as the First Lady’s chief of staff before she was hired by the Southern Poverty Law Center to review workplace culture at the organization. So when she texted Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx during the controversial investigation some feared it was to assist Smollett, who previously had a friendly rapport with the White House during the Obama administration.
Further fueling these fears is the fact that Tchen describes herself as a “family friend” of Smollett’s. As the case grew in the news cycle, Foxx announced that she would recuse herself from the case, citing her communication with Tchen and an unnamed member of Smollett’s family.
Ultimately, the Cook County District Attorney’s office decided to drop all criminal charges against Smollett.
“I know members of the Smollett family based on prior work together,” Tchen explained in a statement to PEOPLE about her involvement a day after the charges were dropped. “Shortly after Mr. Smollett reported he was attacked, as a family friend, I contacted Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who I also know from prior work together.
“My sole activity was to put the chief prosecutor in the case in touch with an alleged victim’s family who had concerns about how the investigation was being characterized in public,” she said.
CNN, NBC Chicago and USA Today have all acquired records of text messages that show as early as Feb. 1, Tchen and Foxx began talking about Smollett’s case. This was initiated after Tchen contacted Foxx saying the actor’s family “have concerns about the investigation.”
Foxx responded: “Spoke to the Superintendent [Eddie] Johnson,” who has since maintained that Smollett pulled a magnanimous hoax. “I convinced him to reach out to FBI to ask that they take over the investigation.”
That same day, the unnamed relative of Smollett’s texted Foxx separately, asking to talk over the phone. “Tina Tchen gave me your number,” the relative texted. To which she responded: “Spoke to the superintendent earlier, he made the ask. Trying to figure out logistics. I’ll keep you posted,”
Smollett had previously faced 16 counts of felony disorderly conduct for allegedly fabricating details of a racist and homophobic hate crime that he claims occurred on a well below-freezing early morning on Jan. 29 in Chicago. Two Nigerian-American brothers, one of whom had appeared on Empire, told police that Smollett had paid them to help stage the attack.
Despite increased public sentiment that this was an ill-conceived publicity stunt that went too far, the 36-year-old continues to maintain his innocence.