Obscenity ruling? State’s top court to hear case seeking to end pols using ‘obscene amounts’ of campaign cash to pay lawyers
Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke recused herself from the decision to take the case — and from hearing it once it comes before the Illinois Supreme Court. Her husband, Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), has already spent nearly $2 million in campaign contributions on legal fees since federal agents raided his offices.
The state’s top court plans to rule on the thorny question of whether Illinois politicians can dip into their campaign funds to pay for their criminal defense or other legal troubles, a decision that could directly affect the embattled husband of Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke.
The court’s chief justice recused herself from the decision to take the case — and from hearing it once it actually comes before the Illinois Supreme Court.
Her husband, Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), has already spent nearly $2 million in campaign contributions on legal fees — including $88,718.85 to the firm representing a co-defendant — since federal agents first put butcher paper over the windows of the alderman’s City Hall office and raided his Southwest Side ward headquarters.
But the state’s highest court decided on Wednesday to hear an appeal from Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) that could put a stop to the “obscene amounts” of campaign cash elected officials caught under the federal microscope put toward their criminal defense.
That appeal is related to a 2019 complaint Sigcho-Lopez filed over allegations 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 that initial battle, but asked the state’s highest court in May to take up the matter.
The 25th Ward alderperson said he and his attorney, Adolfo Mondragon, haven’t yet been notified of when the court will take up the case, but he’s “glad” it decided to hear the appeal.
“We believe it is critical, especially during these trying times in our city, that these practices are addressed,” Sigcho-Lopez said.
“These corrupt practices of the past must have consequences, and we cannot allow the system to have these loopholes that has allowed several public officials to use campaign donations for [their] legal defense cases against corruption allegations. We believe that we have a good case and we look forward to having our case heard in the Supreme Court.”
Justices Anne Burke and Mary Jane Theis took no part in deciding to hear Sigcho-Lopez’s appeal, according to a notice from the court. The two justices will not participate in the case once it goes before the court, a spokesman said.
The court’s spokesman said their decision to recuse themselves falls under “judicial discretion” when asked whether the two justices offered any reasons for their recusals.
While the appeal is focused on Solis, others such as Ald. Ed Burke and former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, have also reached into their well-stocked campaign coffers and used “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,” according to the filing.
Records from the Illinois State Board of Elections show Burke has spent $1.91 million since late 2018, including the $88,718.85 to the firm representing political aide Peter Andrews.
More than two years ago, the alderman, Andrews and developer Charles Cui were hit by a blockbuster racketeering indictment that accuses Ed Burke of using his seat on the City Council to steer business toward his private tax law firm.
Though he hasn’t been charged with a crime and denies any wrongdoing, Madigan was implicated in a bribery scheme in which ComEd is accused of sending $1.3 million to Madigan’s associates for doing little or no work.
The former state House speaker has spent a little over $6.8 million since early 2018, a total that includes fighting lawsuits filed by former political rivals and other legal troubles.
Along with Burke, Alderpersons Carrie Austin (34th) and Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) have also been indicted on federal charges.
All three have pleaded not guilty.
Through the coffers of the 34th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, Austin paid $45,000 to Clark Hill PLC in early July 2019 — a little less than a month after her ward office was raided — for attorney fees, according to records from the state’s board of elections.
Another $40,000 for attorney fees was paid to the firm through the alderperson’s Citizens for Carrie M. Austin campaign fund on the same day, records show.
An attorney from that firm is part of a team representing the longtime alderperson.
Quarterly filings for the Friends of Patrick D. Thompson for Alderman campaign committee don’t show funds going toward the alderperson’s legal defense.
Sigcho-Lopez said he’s hopeful the court will rule in his favor, a decision that could “set a precedent” for the use of campaign funds going forward.
The alderperson also said he’s working on campaign finance reform to “start changing the legacy that we have in the city of Chicago, unfortunately, with corruption cases that continue to happen.”