Two Pritzker appointees to state parole board ousted amid GOP complaints about 'troubling message'

Delivering a sharp rebuke to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the state Senate on Monday rejected one of his nominees to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, a longtime consultant who is also a godmother to former President Barack Obama’s daughters.

The vote came hours after another of Pritzker’s appointees to the board opted to resign from the state agency rather than face scrutiny over his parole decisions.

By Monday evening, Pritzker was down to just six members of his parole board, two less than a required quorum — an atypical battle for a Democratic governor with a Democratic supermajority.

Both Eleanor Wilson, whose appointment was voted down, and Oreal James, who resigned, drew sharp criticism for their votes last year to grant parole to Joseph Hurst and Johnny Veal, two men convicted of killing police officers.

Wilson’s appointment was denied in a 15-31 vote — 14 of the no votes coming from Democrats.

Urging a no vote on the Senate floor, state Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, said Wilson’s votes to release "cop killers" send a "troubling message to the family members of these officers that their sacrifice … is somehow insignificant."

It’s the latest and most damning hiccup for a board that faced GOP-led accusations about the transparency of the governor’s appointments and the decisions of his nominees. The board’s duties include deciding which prisoners are eligible for parole and reviewing recommendations for executive clemency. It is under a microscope during a campaign year in which Republicans are accusing Pritzker of being soft on crime.

James resigned just hours ahead of Wilson’s rejection by the Senate.

In his resignation letter sent to Pritzker’s office on Monday, James wrote that he "took seriously the responsibility to apply the law as it is written in our constitution," while also thanking the governor for the opportunity to serve on the board.

"These laws direct the board to be fair to all without bias or prejudice. This too, is all you have ever asked of me," James wrote.

James, a certified mediator with expertise in restorative justice practices, was appointed in April 2019 but was never confirmed because the state Senate did not take up the appointment amid the pandemic and abbreviated legislative sessions. Under the Illinois Constitution, executive nominees are automatically confirmed if the Senate doesn’t vote on the matter within 60 session days.

But that process prompted Republicans to take a deep look into the decisions of the nominees. GOP lawmakers also complained of a lack of transparency during the pandemic.

But Democrats, too, had reservations over the board’s decisions, not wanting to go home and have to explain to constituents why they endorsed someone who let a violent person out of prison.

Senate Democrats did not take a position as a caucus on Wilson’s nomination. And in addition to the 14 voting against her appointment, another 12 Democratic senators opted not to vote at all.

"The murder of a police officer is more than an attack on an individual, it is an attack on the rule of law itself," state Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, told the Sun-Times after voting against Wilson’s appointment.

"No individual who commits such a heinous crime should be eligible for parole. The Prisoner Review Board should ensure that the most severe crimes are met with the most severe sanction under the law."

Pritzker stood by his nominee, even in defeat.

"The Governor is disappointed that a highly qualified nominee will no longer be able to serve on the Prisoner Review Board and he thanks Eleanor Wilson for her service and dedication to justice," said Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh.

"The Pritzker administration remains committed to ensuring that highly qualified nominees fill these critical roles on the Prisoner Review Board, especially because we must fulfill our constitutional and statutory obligations for clemency and parole as well as key public safety functions of the board."

A source with knowledge of the appointment process said the scrutiny was wearing on James, and it wasn’t what he "signed up for." James was "getting politicized and dragged through the mud," the source said.

A spokeswoman for state Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, said in a statement that "Governor Pritzker has appointed members that have made some very concerning decisions."

"The Governor should begin to recognize that there is a coequal branch of government and start appointing individuals that the Senate can support," spokeswoman Ellie Leonard said.

Wilson is a veteran consultant on social justice and educational issues and one of the founding members of DePaul University’s School for New Learning. Wilson was also appointed in April 2019. She also served as a commissioner on President Barack Obama’s White House Fellowship Program and is godmother to Sasha and Malia Obama.

"Unfortunately the person we are considering at this moment is someone who did not give consideration to law enforcement on the street," Bryant said on the Senate floor.

Veal, 69, was convicted of killing Chicago Police Sgt. James Severin and Officer Anthony Rizzato in 1970. Hurst, 78, was convicted of killing Chicago Police Officer Herman Stallworth in 1967. The Illinois Prisoner Review Board voted 8-4 to parole both Veal and Hurst. Both men have been released from prison, but must report to parole officers for the duration of their original sentences.

Veal was 17 in 1970 when he and another man, armed with .30-caliber rifles, killed Severin and Rizzato as the two officers walked across a baseball diamond in the Cabrini-Green housing complex. Veal’s co-defendant, George Knights, 75, remains in prison.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx had objected to Veal’s release. Then she changed her policy, saying she wouldn’t make any more parole recommendations, so she declined to take a position on Hurst’s release. Hurst was convicted of killing Stallworth and wounding his partner after being pulled over for speeding in 1967.

A parole board "en banc" hearing was scheduled for Thursday, in which the board would vote on those seeking parole, but it has been postponed, according to the board’s website. The next meeting is scheduled for April 28. The 15-seat panel is down to six members with James’ resignation, and is now without a quorum.

The cases that would have been considered this week involve six men in prison for murder. Four of them were convicted of killings in Cook County in the 1970s. The other two were convicted of Downstate slayings. The most highly publicized case involved Curtis Brownell, who was convicted of raping and strangling a Rockford girl in 1977. All have been repeatedly denied parole by the board.

Last week, the Chicago Tribune reported the state Senate rejected Jeffrey Mears’ nomination to the Prisoner Review Board, with Senate Republicans voicing concern over Mears voting with a majority of the board to parole Paula Sims, convicted of killing her two daughters in 1990, as well as the board’s decision to parole Zelma King, who was convicted of three homicides.

Sims and King were released from prison last year, but like Veal and Hurst, remain under state supervision.