Illinois Supreme Court ponders politicians using campaign cash for criminal defense
Chicago Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez argued a publicly elected official facing corruption charges should not be able to use campaign funds for a legal defense. If the person is not running for office, the legal bills are a “personal” expense, he contended.
The Illinois Supreme Court heard arguments from a Chicago alderman who contends publicly elected officials under federal investigation should not be able to use campaign cash to pay defense lawyers.
The case against the common practice employed by Illinois politicians stems from a complaint filed in 2019 by Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez against his predecessor in the 25th Ward, Ald. Danny Solis. Sigcho-Lopez’ lawyer argued Jan. 19 before the justices that Solis improperly used $220,000 in campaign funds to cover legal fees while the focus of a federal corruption probe.
Sigcho-Lopez contends the use of campaign funds by now cooperating federal informant Solis constituted a “personal” expense prohibited by campaign finance law.
“It wasn’t a campaign debt because he wasn’t running for office, and it can’t be said to be a business debt or a public debt – it’s a personal debt,” said Sigcho-Lopez’ attorney, Adolfo Mondragon. “The legal services the firm provided were for the direct satisfaction of Solis’ criminal defense needs.”
Recusing herself from deliberations was Chief Justice Anne Burke, whose indicted husband, Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, has spent roughly $2.7 million in campaign cash challenging federal corruption charges. The majority of Illinois’ highest court will deliberate the issue during the coming months.
While Sigcho-Lopez seeks judicial intervention to halt the practice, Solis’ defense has argued state law bans the use of campaign funds for clothes, club membership dues, tuition and other perks, but not legal defense fees.
Defense attorney Michael Dorf contended because the practice has been accepted for years by the Illinois State Board of Elections, final consideration on the issue should fall to the lawmakers in the General Assembly.
At least one member of the court, Justice Michael Burke, challenged Dorf’s arguments that using campaign funds to fight criminal indictment was an ordinary and justifiable expenditure. Burke is not related to the chief justice or alderman.
“Are we at that point in Illinois where we’re going to say that’s an ordinary expense of holding public office?” Justice Michael Burke asked.
In addition to Solis and Ald. Ed Burke, former House Speaker Michael Madigan spent nearly $6.8 million in campaign cash challenging implications of his involvement in the ComEd bribery scheme. Indicted Ald. Carrie Austin reported spending over $80,000 fighting charges.
Ex-Crestwood Mayor Lou Presta spent $25,000 from campaign funds on legal fees fighting bribery and tax charges in a pay-to-play red-light camera scheme. He pleaded guilty and resigned from office in November 2021.