State Supreme Court: No blanket ban on using campaign funds to pay defense attorneys


SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday that elected officials and their campaign committees can, in limited circumstances, use campaign funds to pay criminal defense attorneys.

The case involved the old Ald. Danny Solis (25)and), who avoided federal prosecution by agreeing to cooperate with the FBI and Justice Department in their investigation of Ald. Ed Burke (14and), was indicted in May 2019 on federal corruption charges.

Solis’ successor, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), filed his lawsuit in 2019, alleging Solis wrongfully used $220,000 from the 25th Ward’s campaign fund for defense attorneys while he was under investigation federal.

Sigcho-Lopez lost, but ultimately appealed to the state’s highest court, hoping to set a precedent and “protect the interests of the public.”

The city council member argued that the court’s decision could have wider implications for other politicians, such as former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Burke, who said they “use money campaign money to defend against either formal criminal charges or FBI scrutiny,” Sigcho-Lopez’s appeal pleaded.

The rookie alderman was not happy with the Supreme Court’s decision on Thursday.

“If the law allows corrupt politicians to use campaign funds for legal defense costs, then it’s time to change the law,” Sigcho-Lopez said in a brief written statement.

Aldus. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) speaks during a press conference in 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times File

Earlier this month, Madigan, 79, was indicted by a federal grand jury, charged with racketeering conspiracy and use of interstate facilities for bribery, wire fraud and attempted extortion.

As of last September, Madigan had already spent just over $6.8 million in campaign contributions for lawyers since the start of 2018, a total that includes fighting lawsuits from former political rivals and other issues. legal.

Last September, Burke had spent $1.91 million of his campaign fund on lawyers since late 2018, including $88,718.85 on a law firm representing political aide Peter Andrews.

Madigan, Burke and Andrews have all pleaded not guilty and deny wrongdoing.

Aldus.  Edward Burke in 2019

Aldus. Edward Burke in 2019

Fran Spielman/Sun-Times File

Ed Burke, 78, is married to Anne Burke, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois, who has retired from the case. Two other justices, Mary Jane Theis and P. Scott Neville Jr., also did not take part in the decision, leaving just 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 stand for election in 2019 and was replaced by Sigcho-Lopez.

The Chicago Sun-Times first reported that Solis had been investigated as part of the federal government’s broad public corruption investigation involving state and local officials. But in June 2016, the 25and The district alderman began cooperating with investigators by secretly recording conversations with other officials.

When Solis began cooperating with investigators, he retained the services of the law firm Foley & Lardner LLP. On May 21, 2019, the day after Sigcho-Lopez was sworn in, the 25and The Ward Democratic Organization paid the company $220,000 for legal fees.

What was not publicly known at the time was that on January 3, 2019, Solis entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, according to Burke’s attorneys. On May 30, 2019, prosecutors charged Ald. Ed Burke on 14 counts for allegedly using his position to corruptly solicit business for his private law firm.

City Council members Ed Burke and Danny Solis in 2016.

City Council members Ed Burke and Danny Solis in 2016.

Sigcho-Lopez filed a complaint with the Illinois State Board of Elections alleging neighborhood committee expenses violated Illinois provisions Electoral code. Specifically, he argued, the payment was made to settle a personal debt that was unrelated 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 costs were “customary and reasonable expenses” for government and public service duties of a official.

Sigcho-Lopez’s attorney argued that the purpose of campaign disclosure laws is to deter and mitigate political corruption, and therefore using those funds to defend a public official against political corruption charges would go against the intent of the law.

But a lawyer from 25and The neighborhood committee argued that an investigation into public corruption is directly related to a public servant’s official duties and, therefore, should be considered an allowable expense.

In the court 17 page decision released on Thursday, the remaining four judges drew a narrow line between Sigcho-Lopez’s arguments and those of the 25and neighborhood committee.

They partially rejected the committee’s argument that payment of criminal defense costs is still permitted because the General Assembly has not specifically prohibited them. But they also partially dismissed Sigcho-Lopez’s argument that legal fees were prohibited “personal debt.”

Instead, they concluded that since 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 in the event per case.

And in the case of Solis, Judge David K. Overstreet wrote for the majority, the expense was authorized because Solis had not been charged with criminal charges but had only worked with federal investigators “using its official ability 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.


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