By SAMANTHA SMYLIE
First-time candidate for Cook County State’s Attorney, Bill Conway, promised U. of C. students that he will be independent of the Democratic machine and work hard on balance criminal justice and bail reform.
On Thursday, Feb. 6, Conway was invited to the U. of C.’s Institute of Politics, 5707 S. Woodlawn Ave., to talk to students about his campaign for State’s Attorney and his plans for office.
Conway was born and raised in Chicago. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 2000 and Georgetown School of Law in 2006. Upon returning to Chicago, Conway became a Cook County assistant state’s attorney from 2006 to 2012 while taking classes at U. of C.’s Booth School of Business, graduating in 2013.
While working in the State’s Attorney office, he tried 108 cases and worked in different departments trying misdemeanors, traffic, bond court and violent crime cases. Conway spent the majority of his time in the public corruption and financial crimes unit where he had to “follow the money to get to a conclusion or the root cause of a problem.”
One of the cases that he worked on was about a welfare administrator in Hanover Township who embezzled $200,000 worth of funding. This case received a fair amount of media coverage, including from the Chicago Tribune.
In addition to his time in the State’s Attorney Office, Conway served as a member of the U.S. Navy in Qatar and Afghanistan from July 2017 until April 2018.
“My job over there was figuring out where the Taliban got its money from. The reason we wanted to figure that out is because we wanted to be able to track those money sources so they couldn’t buy weapons to attack us or our troops.” said Conway of his time in active duty.
Currently, Conway serves as a Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer. Before being a “full-time candidate,” he was a professor at DePaul University’s Driehaus College of Business.
With his experiences in the State’s Attorney office and his time on active duty, Conway believes that he can balance the county’s criminal justice reform efforts, stop illegal gun trafficking and get politics out of the State’s Attorney office.
“When we talk about balancing our criminal justice reform efforts, we have to remember what the purpose of jail is; Jail is not a place for people that are poor. It’s not a place for people that are addicted. It’s not a place for people that are mentally ill” said Conway. “But yet at the end of this past year, 2019, there were 259 people in Cook County jail who could be bonded out for less than $1,000. Even putting the humanity of that aside, the taxpayers pay about $160 a night to house these folks.”
When it comes to solving the gun crime epidemic, Conway believes that the State’s Attorney office should be involved in investigating where the gun comes from.
“We need to spend our resources really working our way up that chain. If we do get to a point where we have identified a straw buyer in Indiana or Minnesota, we will happily turn that case over to the U.S. Attorney’s office. I have a lot of friends that work at the U.S Attorney’s office. We currently have an administration there that will happily take that case, which is great,” said Conway.
While speaking about keeping politics out of the office, Conway talked candidly about his lack of support from the Cook County Democratic Party — “for a long time the state’s attorney’s office has been very tied to the Cook County Democratic Party. I can promise you that I will not be tied to the Cook County Democratic Party. In fact, they’re working pretty hard to make sure that I’m not elected because of that.
“When I am elected, I’m not going to owe anybody anything other than the voters and the people that put me there. That’s why I can promise you that when I’m elected there will be a public corruption reckoning we’ve been waiting for in Chicago for decades.”
Throughout the rest of the afternoon, visitors and students at the Institute of Politics asked Conway to elaborate on his ideas.
One visitor asked what Conway can do to reform the office in three months versus three years. Conway immediately talked putting an end to charging citizens with a felony for driving on a suspended license.
Conway explained, “Driving on a suspended license is currently prosecuted at the felony level roughly 100 times a month. The people that are prosecuted for felony driving on a suspended license are not people that have three DUIs and they continue to drive, I’ll happily prosecute them at the felony level. But, if you acquire three (other) cases, you can then be charged at the felony level.”
Another issue that Conway seeks to solve on the first day of office is filing more petitions for “no bail” in cases that fall under the “discretionary bail” category like criminal sexual assault, possession of a machine gun, armed habitual criminal and others. Lastly, he wants to send first those convicted of retail theft for the first time to school since it is a low-cost program and an alternative to jail that still holds people accountable.
For most of the afternoon, Conway breezed through the question and answer portion until his relationship with the Carlyle Group, a multinational investment firm based in Washington D.C. founded by his father in the late 1980s, came up. According to Illinois Sunshine, Conway’s father donated $7.5 million dollars to his campaign.
A student activist asked, “The Carlyle group has profited off of tear gas used in the Ferguson protests. My question is if that’s something you approve of, and if not, is that money that you’re willing to consider giving back?”
Shaken by the question, Conway responded, “I have not been shy about the fact that I was going to use significant family resources to get our message out there. The reason for that is because what we’ve seen in Chicago for too long is that there is an entrenched political machine that often puts people in power.”
“When those people get in power, they owe something to that machine. That’s why we’ll be fortunate in the sense that I’m not going to owe anything to anybody.”
Conway, also, promised the crowd that if there was a case involving his father’s firm or his parents, he would recuse himself.