SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — The Illinois Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday in a fascinating case that could determine whether elected officials can use their political campaign funds to hire lawyers to defend themselves in public corruption cases.
Three powerful Chicago Democrats ensnared in a federal corruption probe have been using the controversial method to fund their legal defense for several years.
Federal prosecutors accused former Chicago alderman Danny Solis of receiving sex acts, Viagra, and campaign cash in a corruption scheme. Solis later used that same campaign account to pay lawyers $220,000 to defend himself in the investigation.
Chicago alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez was elected to replace the disgraced Solis in 2019, and filed a complaint with the Illinois State Board of Elections arguing Solis violated campaign finance laws when he spent campaign funds to mount a legal defense in his corruption case. The panel of election officials, which is comprised of political appointees, voted unanimously to dismiss the complaint.
“We’re appealing here in the highest court to make sure that we as legislators are protecting the best interest of the public,” Sigcho-Lopez said on the steps of the Illinois Supreme Court Wednesday morning. “This will have implications. This is why we’re here because this sets a precedent.”
The State Board of Elections said if the General Assembly wanted to enact a specific prohibition on the use of campaign funds for legal fees, they could write that into the law.
Justice Michael Burke referred to a similar case that came before the Supreme Court in New Jersey.
The court in New Jersey “looked at this exact issue,” Burke said. “It said this: ‘We have yet to reach the point where it can be said that defending against federal or state criminal indictment alleging corrupt practices is an ordinary expense of holding public office.'”
Burke asked, “Are we at that point in Illinois where we’re going to say that that’s an ordinary expense of holding public office?”
“The legislature knows how to deal with that,” election attorney Michael Dorf replied. “That’s a legislative solution, and Illinois knows how to do that if they wanted to do it. And the Illinois legislature hasn’t.”
“The spirit of the law…should be to deter from corruption, and not to make loopholes that allowed officials to ironically use the same campaign funds for their own protection of allegations of corruption,” Sigcho-Lopez said after the hearing concluded.
Federal court documents show Solis eventually flipped and became a mole for the FBI and even wore a wire in private conversations with alderman Ed Burke, the former chair of Chicago’s finance committee, and former House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Since 2019, Burke has spent $3.3 million from his campaign account on legal fees. His wife, Chief Justice Anne Burke, has recused herself from the case before the court.
Madigan, whose legal troubles began in 2018 when a campaign worker went public with sexual harassment complains, has spent a total of $6.8 million on legal expenses from his campaign account, with the amount climbing higher every year. Madigan’s legal fees cost his campaign account $2.8 million in 2021, which was the year he left office.
“People are getting hit in the news every day with the obscene amounts of campaign money that has been used to defend individuals that have betrayed or have allegedly betrayed the public trust,” attorney Adolfo Mondragon said after making his case to the Supreme Court on Sigcho-Lopez’s behalf.
“If there was a matter of $1,000 here, $1,000 there, I think maybe the average person wouldn’t care,” he said.
Madigan has not been charged and denies any criminal wrongdoing. Burke is under federal indictment, but pleaded not guilty. Solis’ successor in the Chicago city council filed a 2019 complaint with the Illinois State Board of Elections and argued the ban on using campaign funds for personal use amounts to a prohibition on hiring lawyers to clear their name in a corruption investigation or allegation.
“Politicians can get accused without ever getting charged, they get investigated without getting charged, they get charged and not convicted,” Dorf said after defending the practice before the Supreme Court.
Dorf is listed as the chairman and treasurer of the Democratic Party of Illinois, though he argued the case on behalf of the Illinois State Board of Elections and the 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, which Solis controlled. The final expense reported from that campaign fund was a $5,000 payment in October 2020 made out to the Law Offices of Michael C. Dorf.
The case raises a number of moral and ethical questions about the use of campaign funds. Existing law strictly prohibits elected officials from using campaign cash on personal expenses. Dorf argued that defending yourself from a criminal investigation or allegation is a “political” expense, not a personal one.
“Accusations get thrown around against public officials that are totally meritless,” he said. “So there is a legitimate reason to be able to use your campaign funds, which are meant to keep you in office, to assist in your legal expenses.”
But what about cases like Madigan and Solis, where they have already left office?
“Nobody is ever entirely out of office,” Dorf responded.