By PETER HANCOCK
Illinois Capitol News
SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether public officials being investigated or charged with crimes can use their campaign funds to pay for their legal defense.
The court heard oral argument last week in a case involving former Chicago city councilman Daniel Solis, then chairman of the city council’s zoning committee, who was under investigation by the FBI for allegedly accepted campaign donations from promoters in exchange for official action.
Solis did not run for office in 2019 and was replaced by Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who filed a complaint about it with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
On May 21, 2019, the day after Sigcho-Lopez was sworn in, the 25and The Ward Regular Democratic Organization, chaired by Solis, used $220,000 to pay the law firm Foley & Lardner, LLP, for its defense. The purpose of the payment was first reported by local media.
Solis was not prosecuted in this case. Instead, he reached a deferred prosecution deal with the Justice Department in exchange for agreeing to wear a lead and help investigate fellow Chicago City Councilman Ed Burke. , who is the husband of Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke.
Anne Burke recused herself from the case, as did Judge Mary Jane Theis. Neither gave an official reason for their recusal.
That leaves only five justices to decide the case, but the Illinois Constitution still requires four justices to agree on a decision.
The ISBE dismissed the complaint, saying that Illinois’ campaign disclosure law prohibits the use of campaign funds to settle personal debts, but specifically allows the use of campaign funds ” to cover the usual and reasonable expenses of an office holder related to the execution of governmental missions and public service functions”.
The issue before the court is whether the cost of a criminal defense attorney is a personal expense or an expense directly related to Solis’ government or public service duties.
“Are we at this point in Illinois where we’re going to say it’s an ordinary expense to hold public office? Judge Michael Burke asked during closing arguments. Michael Burke is not related to Anne or Ed Burke.
Illinois law itself does not define the difference between personal and official expenses. But Adolfo Mondragon, Sigcho-Lopez’s attorney, argued that criminal defense costs cannot be considered part of an elected official’s government duties.
“The purpose of the Illinois Election Code Disclosure Act campaign is to deter and mitigate public corruption,” he said. “Therefore, any interpretation of the Campaign Disclosure Act that authorizes the use of campaign funds to pay for the criminal defense of public office holders against investigations or charges of public corruption, the very evil that the law was designed to combat, is contrary to the law’s intention.”
But Michael Dorf, lawyer for the 25and The neighborhood committee argued that public corruption investigations are, by definition, directly related to a public official’s official duties, so attorneys’ fees should be considered an authorized use.
‘The expenditure was not for strictly personal use and would not have occurred if Alderman Solis were not a public servant,’ he said.
Most political campaigns regularly incur legal fees, and payments to attorneys frequently appear on campaign financial statements without any specific explanation of the type of legal work performed.
Modregon conceded that it was only through news reports that the public learned of the goal of 25and The ward committee payment to Foley & Lardner, but he said that claim was not challenged during the administrative hearing before the State Board of Elections.
Dorf, meanwhile, argued that if lawmakers wanted to prohibit the use of campaign funds to pay criminal defense attorneys, they could write that into the statute, and he noted that there were two bills pending in the General Assembly to do just that.
One of them is House Bill 2929, by Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, who called on Democrats to review the bill in light of the Supreme Court case.
“This should not be a matter of ambiguity in Illinois state law,” she said in a press release Tuesday. wrong message: that literally corrupt and unethical officials who have abused their office don’t have to pay for their misdeeds, they can just continue to abuse their office to seek campaign funds and keep the game going insiders.
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