Eye On Illinois: Lawmakers unlikely to take Supreme Court’s invitation to act

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If lawmakers are sincere about ethics reform, the Illinois Supreme Court might well deliver a perfect opportunity.

That prediction opened my Jan. 29 column. On Thursday, four members of the court indeed delivered, affirming that there are some circumstances under which campaign funds can pay for a public official’s legal defense.

The underlying case involves Daniel Solis, a former Chicago alderman and Zoning Committee chairman under FBI investigation on allegations of taking campaign donations from developers in exchange for city approval.

The Illinois State Board of Elections dismissed a complaint from Solis’ successor regarding $220,000 in campaign contributions spent on legal bills because the Campaign Disclosure Act – which bans spending campaign money on personal debts – allows politicians “to defray the customary and reasonable expenses of an officeholder in connection with the performance of governmental and public service functions.”

At oral arguments, campaign committee lawyer Michael Dorf said, “the expenditure was not for strictly personal use and would not have occurred if [the alderman] were not a public official.”

The Supreme Court mostly rejected that position. Justice David Overstreet wrote the opinion; Justices Rita Garman, Michael Burke and Robert Carter concurred.

“The essence of a conviction for official misconduct, conflict of interest or public corruption is that the public official has attempted ‘to personally enrich himself or another by an act exceeding his lawful authority as a public servant,’ ” Overstreet wrote, citing established precedent. “Allowing campaign monies to subsidize public corruption amounts to an unreasonable interpretation of the Election Code.”

However, there’s an exception.

“We cannot ignore that not all allegations by political rivals are sound and that baseless allegations are at times asserted against public officials because of their very capacity as public officials,” Overstreet wrote. “Until the General Assembly amends the statute to, for example, specifically prohibit payment from campaign funds for legal fees incurred in defense of criminal allegations against a public official or candidate, the issue requires the [Elections] Board’s consideration on a case-by-case basis.

Solis wasn’t indicted. He made a deferred federal prosecution agreement and wore a wire to help investigate Ald. Ed Burke, husband of Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke, who recused herself from this decision, along with Justices Mary Jane Theis and P. Scott Neville.

Would Solis have cooperated with feds if it meant paying $220,000 out of pocket? The court didn’t examine that hypothetical, but its ruling gives the ISBE the leeway to make such determinations, or to decide an official had to hire lawyers to fight off lies.

Lawmakers could close the loophole. Or they could specify acceptable circumstances, eliminating ISBE discernment. Most likely they’ll do nothing, making this opinion the new standard. But the court certainly highlighted the opportunity to act.

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

via Shaw Local

March 26, 2022 at 12:03PM

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