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Madigan, Pritzker, Burke spent over $3M in campaign money on lawyers last year, and they’re not alone

Illinois politicians paid $5.3 million in legal fees out of their political funds in 2019 for reasons including criminal investigations and litigation, records show.

Big legal spenders, from left: House Speaker Michael Madigan, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Ald. Edward Burke.
Big legal spenders, from left: House Speaker Michael Madigan, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Ald. Edward Burke.
Sun-Times files

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) are at the top of the pack in a race no politician wants to win.

The three powerful figures have tapped their campaign funds to cover more legal bills than any other Illinois officials have in the past year, records reviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

That’s during a period in which a wide-ranging series of government investigations has fueled moves by Illinois politicians to turn to their campaign funds, accounting for a large portion of the $5.3 million that political figures statewide laid out for legal expenses, the records show.

The Friends of Michael J. Madigan campaign account topped all other political groups, with nearly $1.3 million spent on lawyers and related costs, according to a Sun-Times analysis of Illinois State Board of Elections records since Jan. 1, 2019.

At No. 2, the JB for Governor fund paid more than $960,000 to the law firm Perkins Coie LLP in the same period. A Pritzker campaign spokesman says that covered the cost of litigation by former campaign workers who said they were the victims of discrimination and harassment, as well as “financial disclosure filings and matters related to the campaign.”

Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, has been dealing with his own legal problems – including complaints of sexual harassment against aides and lawsuits by a political rival that are responsible for much of his payments to lawyers, according to Eileen Boyce, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Democratic Party that Madigan also heads.

Madigan, widely regarded as the state’s most powerful political leader, also has been under scrutiny in a wide-ranging political corruption investigation by the FBI, though Boyce says none of the legal fees went to that.

Federal authorities wiretapped the phone of Mike McClain, a once-powerful lobbyist who’s been a close associate of Madigan, the Chicago Tribune has reported.

WBEZ Chicago has reported that the FBI asked McClain to cooperate in their investigation of ComEd, which is regulated by the state and has been a prolific campaign contributor and fundraiser for Madigan.

And the Sun-Times has reported that Madigan was secretly recorded in a 2014 meeting with a developer who wanted to build a hotel in Chinatown and then-Ald. Danny Solis, who is cooperating with the feds on matters including their investigation of Burke.

Former Ald. Danny Solis (right), seen joking with Ald. Edward Burke (14th) at a 2016 Chicago City Council meeting, has tapped campaign funds to pay $220,000 over the past year or so in legal fees.
Former Ald. Danny Solis (right), seen joking with Ald. Edward Burke (14th) at a 2016 Chicago City Council meeting, has tapped campaign funds to pay $220,000 over the past year or so in legal fees.
Brian Jackson / Sun-Times

The Southwest Side alderman’s legal fees over the past year that he’s tapped his political kitty to cover have topped $800,000, records show. Burke was charged in January 2019 with attempted extortion, accused of trying to muscle the owner of a Burger King franchise into hiring his law firm for property tax appeals. Burke subsequently was indicted in a broader racketeering case.

Burke’s campaign fund has paid $540,000 to Jenner & Block, which employs one of his defense lawyers, Charles Sklarsky, a former federal and Cook County prosecutor whose law firm biography describes him as “one of the architects of Operation Greylord, an unprecedented undercover probe of corruption in the Cook County judiciary” in the 1980s.

Another $250,000 went to Loeb & Loeb LLP. That firm’s Joseph Duffy, a former federal prosecutor and IRS agent, is another of Burke’s lawyers.

Burke’s campaign fund also has paid about $14,000 in legal bills from Blegen & Garvey, the law firm representing the alderman’s longtime aide Pete Andrews, who has been charged with “conspiring with Burke to extort the operator of the fast food restaurant,” records show.

The money in these political funds comes from individuals’ and businesses’ campaign contributions, among other sources.

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The Sun-Times analysis of campaign funds also found significant legal expenses were paid on behalf of other political figures under FBI scrutiny, including:

  • Solis, whose 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization paid $220,000 over the past year or so to the firm Foley & Lardner LLP for legal fees. Solis’ cooperation — including wearing a wire to secretly record conversations with Burke for two years — helped authorities build their criminal case against the alderman.
  • Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat who has pleaded guilty to taking bribes to protect the interests of SafeSpeed LLC, a red-light camera company operating across the Chicago area. Sandoval’s campaign spent $90,000 on two law firms. He is cooperating with authorities.
  • Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski, who also is McCook’s mayor and whose campaign fund has spent $200,000 on two law firms. He and his county chief of staff, Patrick Doherty, helped secure taxpayer funding for a SafeSpeed investor for development projects in the suburbs. Tobolski’s home and municipal office were raided, and federal agents have interviewed Doherty. Neither has been charged with a crime.
  • Former Oakbrook Terrace Mayor Tony Ragucci, whose campaign fund has spent $30,000 on an attorney, and Crestwood Mayor Lou Presta, whose campaign fund has spent $25,000. Presta has been interviewed by federal agents, and they seized $60,000 in cash from Ragucci’s home. Both suburbs use SafeSpeed cameras. Neither Ragucci nor Presta has been charged with a crime.
  • Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), who spent $91,423 on three law firms, all but about $1,200 of it in the month after the FBI raided her Roseland office. The alderman’s three campaign funds paid a total of $85,000 to Clark Hill PLC and $5,000 to attorney Susan Pavlow. The alderman hasn’t been charged with any crime.
Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski’s campaign fund has spent $200,000 in the past year on two law firms.
Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski’s campaign fund has spent $200,000 in the past year on two law firms.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

There’s no standard method for how campaigns report legal expenses, so it isn’t always clear what’s going toward such fees.

Alsip Mayor John Ryan’s campaign fund, for instance, paid $7,500 to criminal defense attorney Michael Ettinger around the time Ryan was interviewed by federal agents late last year about SafeSpeed. The expense was listed as being for “consulting.”

Alsip Mayor John Ryan.
Alsip Mayor John Ryan.
Village of Alsip

“There is no prohibition against” politicians tapping their campaign funds to cover the cost of lawyers for criminal matters, elections board spokesman Matt Dietrich says.

“If someone believes an officeholder is improperly using campaign funds in so doing, they can file a complaint, and our board will make a final decision. But the decision would only be on that specific case. Our board doesn’t have the authority to impose blanket prohibitions like that. The General Assembly would need to amend the election code.”

Many of the legal expenses examined by the Sun-Times appear to be routine, for the usual legal matters involved in helping candidates get on the ballot and trying to knock their opponents off, among other things.

In her failed campaign for mayor of Chicago, which went to a runoff before she lost to Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle paid $99,390.95 through April 2019 to Ancel Glink P.C., mainly for the firm to handle election petition challenges, according to a campaign spokeswoman. Using her county board campaign fund, she spent another $4,812 with the same firm.

Bill Daley, another failed mayoral hopeful, paid $109,906.60 in legal fees from his campaign fund. Mayer Brown LLP got $50,000 of that for election law compliance work, Ballard Spahr LLP $40,000 and Novack and Macey LLP the remainder for petition challenges, according to Daley’s campaign spokesman.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel spent $66,770 with two law firms, which he says only was for “compliance advice to adhere to the rules and regs.”

Faced with losing his post as the Lake County sheriff by fewer than 150 votes, Mark Curran spent $66,745.82 on legal fees, which he says went toward a recount he lost. A Republican, he is now running for the U.S. Senate.

Former Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd) — a registered state lobbyist whose clients have included ComEd — paid $25,000 to criminal defense lawyer Thomas Breen.

The former alderman’s son, state Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Chicago, also spent $25,000 to pay legal bills. That went to the law firm Jones Day. Zalewski, who works for another Loop law firm, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Neither did state Rep. Bob Rita, a Blue Island Democrat who paid $52,859.51 to Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP, more than half of that in February 2019.