Video: The Illinois Supreme Court tackles what you can and can't do with campaign funds. (Produced by Amanda Vinicky)
Allowing elected officials in Illinois to use campaign funds to pay for their legal defense is a “slap in the face” of efforts to reform the state’s corruption-plagued political culture, the Illinois Supreme Court heard Wednesday.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward) looked on as his attorney Adolfo Mondragon urged the Illinois Supreme Court to overturn decisions by the Illinois State Board of Elections as well as lower courts to toss out his complaint against his predecessor, disgraced former Ald. Danny Solis.
“What a slap in the face” it is to allow politicians accused of political corruption to use funds contributed by supporters of their campaigns to defend themselves from accusations of wrongdoing while in office, Mondragon told the justices.
In May 2019, the 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, which is controlled by Solis, paid $220,000 to cover legal fees to Foley & Lardner LLP, according to records filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Solis, who did not run for reelection to the City Council in 2019, entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in January 2019 and secretly recorded Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward) as part of a federal probe that resulted in a 14-count indictment, including charges of racketeering, bribery and extortion. Burke has pleaded not guilty.
Solis was accused by federal agents of accepting sex acts, Viagra, free weekend use of an Indiana farm once owned by Oprah Winfrey and a steady stream of campaign contributions in return for City Council actions, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Sigcho-Lopez, a member of the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, replaced Solis as alderperson in 2019 and as the 25th Ward democratic committeeperson in March 2020.
Sigcho-Lopez filed the complaint that triggers the legal tussle now in the hands of the state's highest court in November 2019.
Michael Dorf, the attorney for the 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, urged the court to defer to the Illinois State Board of Elections, which voted 8-0 to reject Sigcho-Lopez's complaint. Allowing politicians to use campaign funds to pay legal fees associated with corruption probes has been “policy for a very long time” and should not be changed.
State law allows campaign funds to be used to pay for expenses incurred by elected officials that are “customary and reasonable” — but not for purely personal expenses, such as clothes, haircuts and club memberships.
Justice Michael Burke asked Dorf how it is not the “antithesis” of laws designed to prevent corruption and encourage good government policy to allow campaign funds to cover legal fees associated with legal probes.
In response, Dorf acknowledged that Solis had been contacted by federal prosecutors, and had cooperated with their probe.
Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke and Justice Mary Jane Theis recused themselves from the decision to hear Sigcho-Lopez’s case.
Chief Justice Burke is married to Ald. Burke. Justice Michael Burke is not related to either Ald. Burke or Chief Justice Burke.
In 2021, Ald. Burke paid three law firms, Jenner & Block and Loeb & Loeb and Blegen & Garvey, approximately $750,000 from his Friends of Edward M. Burke campaign fund, according to records filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.