No overall ban on pols using campaign funds to pay criminal defense lawyers, state’s top court rules
The case involved former Ald. Danny Solis (25th), who was under federal investigation, but his successor, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, had hoped state’s top court would set a precedent that could have broader implications for other politicians, such as former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Ald. Ed Burke (14th).
SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday that elected public officials and their campaign committees may, in limited circumstances, use campaign funds to pay criminal defense attorneys.
The case involved former Ald. Danny Solis (25th), who avoided federal prosecution by agreeing to cooperate with the FBI and Justice Department in their investigation of Ald. Ed Burke (14th), who was indicted in May 2019 on federal corruption charges.
Solis’ successor, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), had filed his complaint in 2019, alleging 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 eventually appealed to the state’s highest court, hoping to set a precedent and “protect the interests of the public.”
The City Council member argued the court’s decision could have broader implications for other politicians, such as former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Burke, who have reported “using obscene amounts of campaign money to defend themselves either against formal criminal charges or against FBI scrutiny,” Sigcho-Lopez’s appeal argued.
The rookie alderperson wasn’t happy Thursday with the Supreme Court ruling.
“If the law allows corrupt politicians to use campaign funds for legal defense fees, then it’s time to change the law,” Sigcho-Lopez said in a brief written statement.
Earlier this month, Madigan, 79, was indicted by a federal grand jury, accused of a racketeering conspiracy and using interstate facilities for bribery, wire fraud and attempted extortion.
As of last September, Madigan had already spent a little over $6.8 million in campaign contributions on lawyers since early 2018, a total that includes fighting lawsuits filed by former political rivals and other legal troubles.
As of last September, Burke had spent $1.91 million from his campaign fund on lawyers since late 2018, including $88,718.85 to a law firm representing political aide Peter Andrews.
Madigan, Burke and Andrews have all pleaded not guilty and deny wrongdoing.
Ed Burke, 78, is married to Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke, who recused herself from the case. Two other justices, Mary Jane Theis and P. Scott Neville Jr., also did not take part in the decision, leaving only four justices to decide the case — the minimum number needed to issue a majority opinion.
Solis served on the Chicago City Council from 1996 to 2019 and for a time chaired the Council’s powerful Zoning Committee. He did not run for reelection in 2019 and was succeeded by Sigcho-Lopez.
The Chicago Sun-Times first reported that Solis had been under investigation as part of the federal government’s wide-sweeping probe into public corruption involving state and local elected officials. But in June 2016 the 25th Ward alderperson began cooperating with investigators by secretly recording conversations with other public officials.
When Solis first began cooperating with investigators, he retained the law firm of Foley & Lardner LLP. On May 21, 2019, the day after Sigcho-Lopez was sworn into office, the 25th Ward Democratic Organization paid the firm $220,000 for legal fees.
What was not publicly known at the time was that on Jan. 3, 2019, Solis entered a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s office, according to Burke’s lawyers. On May 30, 2019, prosecutors indicted Ald. Ed Burke on 14 criminal counts for allegedly using his position to corruptly solicit business for his private law firm.
Sigcho-Lopez filed a complaint with the Illinois State Board of Elections alleging that the ward committee’s expenditure violated provisions of the Illinois Election Code. Specifically, he argued, the payment was made to settle a personal debt that was not related to any of his campaigns or for governmental or political purposes directly related to his official duties or responsibilities.
During oral arguments before the Supreme Court in January, much of the discussion focused on whether criminal defense fees constitute “customary and reasonable expenses” for an officeholder’s governmental and public service functions.
Sigcho-Lopez’s attorney argued that the whole purpose of campaign disclosure laws is to deter and mitigate political corruption, and so the use of those funds to defend an official against charges of political corruption would go against the intent of the law.
But an attorney for the 25th Ward committee argued that a public corruption investigation is directly tied to an officeholder’s official duties and, therefore, should be considered an allowable expense.
In the court’s 17-page ruling released Thursday, the remaining four justices drew a narrow line between the arguments of Sigcho-Lopez and those of the 25th Ward committee.
They partially rejected the committee’s argument that payment of criminal defense fees is always permissible because the General Assembly did not specifically prohibit them. But they also partially rejected Sigcho-Lopez’s argument that the legal fees were a prohibited “personal debt.”
Instead, they found that because the General Assembly had not specifically prohibited the payment of criminal defense attorney fees from campaign funds, it is reasonable for the Board of Elections to rule on a case-by-case basis.
And in Solis’ case, Justice David K. Overstreet wrote for the majority, the expense was permissible because Solis had not been indicted on criminal charges but had only worked with federal investigators “using his official capacity to expose public corruption.”
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. Chicago Sun-Times staff contributed to this report.