CHICAGO — Michelle Mbekeani is infectiously enthusiastic about her new job as head of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office Conviction Review Unit. She had been a senior legal and policy advisor in the office until Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Fox announced her new role on December 6.
The very next day, an online news outlet reported that Mbekeani has a side hustle: She has a company called Period that offers, for a fee, to connect attorneys with prisoners who want to pursue wrongful conviction claims, the outlet reported. Period even has a website.
That sounds like quite a conflict of interest—the news article called it “sickening”—for someone who has just been promoted to head the state’s attorney’s wrongful convictions unit.
Except Period is not a real business, Mbekeani says. It’s a concept she developed last spring with classmates enrolled in the New Social Ventures course at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where she is pursuing an MBA.
Students in the class break into groups to develop, research, launch, and pitch a startup social venture, according to the course syllabus. The Period website was part of the class project, according to Mbekeani, who said her group “received a really good grade.”
“The software we envisioned isn’t even built fully,” Mbekeani said Monday. Nor has the company been legally formed. On its website, Period’s phone number is listed as 555-555-5555, a Hollywood favorite.
She said one of her classmates is pursuing the Period concept, which “primarily digitizes legal mail since there is a staffing shortage in prisons across the country… and correctional officers in many states have further been burdened to photocopy all mail.”
“I was thoughtful to avoid any perceived conflict prior to starting the new role [at the state’s attorney’s office] officially,” Mbekeani continued. She added that she may revisit Period “down the line.”
Foxx announced the rebranding of her office’s Conviction Integrity Unit as the Conviction Review Unit in tandem with Mbekeani’s promotion. Foxx’s office said it is the “second overhaul” of the county’s conviction review unit since Foxx was first elected in 2016.
“The first revamp resulted in the overturning of 250 cases, including the first-ever mass exoneration in Cook County for 15 men whose convictions stemmed from the misconduct of a former Chicago Police Officer,” the office’s press release said.
“The establishment of the Conviction Review Unit is not just a name change; it represents a shift in our approach towards rectifying the wrongs of the past, ensuring fairness in our justice system, and incorporating community voices in our decisions,” Foxx said in the announcement.
Mbekeani’s previous work for the state’s attorney’s office included “leading lobbying efforts for first-of-its-kind legislation prohibiting law enforcement from using deceptive tactics when interrogating minors in custody,” the press release said. “She also argued Illinois’ first successful prosecutor-initiated resentencing case, which resulted in the early release of an individual sentenced to an excessive 44-year sentence for a drug conviction.”