Under intense federal scrutiny, former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and embattled Ald. Ed Burke (14th) are reaching deeply into their campaign funds to pay lawyers — already hitting a combined total of nearly $8.5 million.
And a first-term alderman argues it must stop, appealing to the Illinois Supreme Court to end the common Illinois practice of elected officials tapping their campaign coffers for their legal defense against criminal charges or other legal troubles.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) initially filed a complaint in 2019, alleging his predecessor, former Ald. Danny Solis, improperly used $220,000 from the 25th Ward’s campaign fund for defense lawyers while he was under federal investigation.
Sigcho-Lopez lost, but he is now appealing to the state’s highest court to take up the matter, a decision the Southwest Side alderman says could set a precedent and “protect the interests of the public.”
Though the alderman’s appeal is focused on Solis, it could have broader implications for other politicians, such as Madigan and Burke, who’ve reported “using obscene amounts of campaign money to defend themselves either against formal criminal charges or against FBI scrutiny,” Sigcho-Lopez’s appeal argues.
“These politicians have flouted the spirit and letter of the Campaign Disclosure Act, which prohibits a candidate from using campaign funds to pay for numerous personal expenses including haircuts, new suits, cars, houses, club memberships, and, as in this case, personal debts,” the filing reads.
The rookie alderman, who was elected to succeed Solis in 2019, said he views the issue as one that “needs to be addressed systemically,” through the courts and through legislation, to “prevent [this practice] from happening again.”
“I think it’s important to reinforce for the public that our judicial system will bring people to justice, and we’re not allowing these practices that, in a way, allow these elected officials to use campaign funding for defense [against] allegations of corruption,” Sigcho-Lopez told the Chicago Sun-Times.
A review of campaign reports of Solis-controlled political funds doesn’t show any additional expenditures for legal fees since Sigcho-Lopez’s 2019 court filing.
But documents show that Madigan has shelled out a total of $6,798,304.20 on legal fees — from his Friends of Michael J. Madigan and another campaign fund he controls — from early 2018 through March of this year.
The former speaker’s April quarterly filing showed he paid over $2.6 million so far this year alone in legal fees to the firm Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP.
Though he hasn’t been charged with a crime and denies any wrongdoing, Madigan was implicated in a years-long bribery scheme in which ComEd is accused of sending $1.3 million to Madigan’s associates for doing little or no work. Federal prosecutors say it was all going on while ComEd hoped to land Madigan’s support for legislation in Springfield worth more than $150 million to the utility.
The former Southwest Side political powerhouse’s total expenditures on lawyers include fighting lawsuits filed by former campaign rivals and other legal troubles.
A spokeswoman for Madigan had no immediate comment.
Charged with racketeering and bribery in a 59-page indictment, Burke has spent nearly $1.7 million on legal fees since the feds put butcher paper over the windows of his City Hall office in November 2018.
Solis allegedly acted as a middleman in Burke’s shakedowns, wearing a wire during conversations with Burke to help federal agents build a case against the longtime Southwest Side alderman.
Attorneys for Burke and Solis did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne M. Burke is the 14th Ward alderman’s wife.
Sigcho-Lopez’s lawyers said they are focused on getting the court to agree to hear the appeal before talking about recusals.
Adolfo Mondragon, who is representing Sigcho-Lopez, said the appeal — if the Supreme Court chooses to take it up — could clear the way for changes in how campaign funds are used.
“This will clear the law and then will open up the floodgates to whoever wants to file against Madigan or Burke or anybody else who’s doing it,” Mondragon said.
“This was a good vehicle to set the precedent for all of these politicians who get indicted and then, conveniently, dip into their campaign funds, instead of their own pockets, to pay for a first-tier legal defense ... there’s more indictments on the way. There’s going to be other people doing the same thing.”