Ethics Board Warns Chicago Officials: Think Twice Before Creating Legal Defense Fund

Beleaguered members of the Chicago City Council facing sky-high legal bills should think twice before asking members of the public to contribute to a defense fund, according to an opinion from the Chicago Board of Ethics.

In a formal advisory opinion approved unanimously Monday evening, the board warned an unnamed alderperson who sought guidance about whether the city’s Government Ethics Ordinance would allow supporters to help pay attorneys “retained to represent you in legal matters arising out of your public duties” and to “defray” legal expenses to refrain from asking for financial help from the public.

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In keeping with the board’s rules, the city official who requested the analysis was not identified.

Three members of the Chicago City Council — Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward); Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th Ward) and Ald. Carrie Austin (34th Ward) — are under federal indictment. All three have pleaded not guilty. 

“Such monetary donations or contributions, in any amount, whether made to a legal defense fund you establish, or another established for your benefit, or through other means, such as directly to your attorneys, would constitute gifts to you for purposes of the Ethics Ordinance,” according to the opinion, signed by Chair William Conlon. “Thus, you are prohibited from accepting them, unless they come from your relatives or personal friends.”

The Ethics Board defines personal friends are those who “city employees or officials knew prior to or independent of their city service,” according to guidance from the Ethics Board.

Setting up an online fundraiser that is open to the public “would serve as the functional and legal equivalent of a prohibited legal defense fund,” according to the opinion.

Neither Chicago nor Illinois have laws permitting or and regulating legal defense funds, according to the opinion.

“Accordingly, there is no legal basis for the board to distinguish gifts offered or made to city employees or officials through legal defense funds, or directly to their attorneys, from other gifts offered or made to them,” according to the opinion.

City officials and employees who violate the city’s ethics ordinance by accepting prohibited gifts face fines ranging from $1,001 to $5,000 for each offense and could be removed from office, according to the opinion.

While Chicago elected officials might be unable to legally set up a legal defense fund, it is common practice for them to dip into their campaign funds to pay for lawyers if they find themselves in legal hot water.

Burke, former House Speaker Michael Madigan and disgraced former Ald. Danny Solis (25th Ward) have all used campaign cash to pay massive legal bills, a practice that Illinois courts have upheld.

A 2019 effort by Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th Ward) to win a court decision preventing campaign cash from being used to pay legal bills and lawyers by challenging Solis’ spending failed. Sigcho Lopez appealed that decision to the Illinois Supreme Court in May.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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