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Illinois high court hears case over spending campaign money on criminal defense lawyers

The Illinois Supreme Court building in Springfield.

CHICAGO — Is it a “customary and reasonable” expense for Illinois politicians under criminal investigation to use campaign funds to pay for lawyers to keep them out of prison?

Or, is that practice a complete breach of what political donations are supposed to be all about: paying for yard signs, petition circulators, political mailers and campaign commercials?

Those are questions now confronting the Illinois Supreme Court, which heard arguments Wednesday over the propriety of $220,000 in campaign expenditures made by government mole Danny Solis for his criminal defense lawyers.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) challenged the contribution from a campaign committee controlled by his aldermanic predecessor in a complaint initially brought before the State Board of Elections, which now is a defendant before the high court along with the 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization fund that Solis chairs.

Sigcho-Lopez argued Solis’ legal bills paid from that campaign fund amounted to a personal debt disallowed under state law governing campaign expenditures.

In 2020, Solis entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with federal investigators in exchange for foregoing a criminal charge tied to the illegal solicitation and receipt of campaign contributions.

Solis is known to have secretly recorded conversations with now-indicted Ald. Ed Burke on behalf of the government. Solis inked the deferred prosecution deal with federal prosecutors on the same day Burke was arrested on a corruption charge in January 2019.

“I can’t think of any public official’s duties as being customary and reasonable to wire up and help the federal government, even if it is as a good Samaritan,” Sigcho-Lopez’ lawyer, Adolfo Mondragón, told justices Wednesday.

“Campaign disclosure acts…the purpose behind those [is] to combat and deter public corruption,” he said. “So what a slap in the face if you have a law meant to deter corruption through campaign limits and transparency and limiting use of money for campaign-related matters, but then you niche out the ability for one of these politicians facing public corruption, the very evil this is supposed to combat.”

In 2020, the bi-partisan state election board voted unanimously to dismiss Sigcho-Lopez’ complaint on grounds that state election law does not explicitly prohibit campaign expenditures on criminal defense lawyers. Last year, a state appeals court upheld that ruling, a decision Sigcho-Lopez appealed to the state’s high court.

During arguments Wednesday, the lawyer representing the Solis-controlled 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization fund, Michael Dorf, said that the Supreme Court should uphold the decisions by the lower court and the Board of Elections.

Dorf insisted that the fund’s expenditures on behalf of Solis were legitimate under state law and that the legislature deliberately and repeatedly chose not to make the kind of legal payments Solis authorized off-limits.

“This court is not a legislature. The legislature has had the opportunity to do it,” Dorf said, referring to making the prohibition explicit, “and they didn’t.”

Dorf justified the lack of a prohibition by pointing to politicians who did not engage in any wrongdoing but still might become peripherally ensnared in a criminal investigation of someone else and feel compelled to hire a lawyer.

“The appellant,” Dorf said, referring to Sigcho-Lopez, “lives in a world where everybody is guilty, and everybody is not guilty. People are investigated, and they are not charged. People are charged, and they are not convicted.

“And it’s not just the individual who may be under suspicion who is at risk here. Public officials who have no connection with a person who may be under investigation may have had an email from that person and suddenly, they are the subject of a subpoena for thousands of records or perhaps hours of deposition testimony,” Dorf said. “And the legal fees in those situations are oppressive and unfair for someone who just happened to be the recipient of an email or phone call.”

At least one member of the Court, Justice Michael Burke, appeared skeptical of Dorf’s arguments that a politician using campaign funds to fight criminal indictment was an ordinary and justifiable campaign expenditure.

“Are we at that point in Illinois where we’re going to say that’s an ordinary expense of holding public office?” Burke asked during one of several back-and-forths with Dorf over his arguments.

The seven-member court is expected to make a ruling on the case later this year, but it will do so without two members who recused themselves: Justices Mary Jane Theis and Chief Justice Anne Burke.

Burke’s husband is Ald. Ed Burke, the alderman Solis recorded. Alderman Burke has dipped into his campaign funds for legal fees totaling more than $2.8 million since 2019, state records show.

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.

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