Indicted in 2019 on corruption charges, Chicago Alderman Ed Burke hired a small army of lawyers to keep federal prosecutors at bay.
So far, he’s spent $2.7 million in legal fees, a burn rate in excess of $100,000 per month.
But the expense has been no problem because Burke, the ultimate connected Chicago pol, had $12 million in campaign funds when his ordeal began, and he’s using those funds to pay his legal bills.
But there’s a potential fly in the legal-fee ointment.
The Illinois Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Jan. 19 in a lawsuit that challenges the longstanding practice of politicians using campaign funds to pay their criminal defense lawyers.
Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, one of Burke’s colleagues on the Chicago City Council, contends that Illinois election law does not permit elected officials to use campaign funds to pay “legal fees that are of a ‘personal’ nature.”
He filed his complaint with the Illinois State Board of Elections after Chicago’s 25th Ward Organization in 2019 used $220,000 in campaign funds to pay former Alderman Danny Solis’ criminal lawyers.
After the elections board dismissed the complaint, Sigcho-Lopez unsuccessfully appealed his case to the First District Appellate Court in Chicago.
That’s where most lawsuits end, because the Illinois Supreme Court accepts only a small number — roughly 5 percent — of the cases it’s asked to review.
But the high court caught the attention of Illinois politicians when it agreed to hear Sigcho-Lopez’s request to review the ruling against him.
There’s a hugely embarrassing aspect to this case.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke is the wife of Ed Burke, and the outcome of this case could have a devastating effect on their personal finances. She has recused herself from the case because of her conflict of interest.
So, too, for undisclosed reasons, has Justice Mary Jane Theis.
Advocates of the disputed practice defend it on simple grounds. Illinois law governing campaign expenditure bars spending on 12 grounds, none of which are for a public official’s legal fees.
Michael Dorf, the 25th Ward’s lawyer, argued that since spending on legal fees is not strictly prohibited by law, it must be legally permissible. He argued Sigcho-Lopez is asking the high court to “insert words into (the statute), which do not currently exist, in order to make legal fees a prohibited expense.”
Like most legal cases, the court’s decision will come down to how it interprets the fine points of Illinois law, specifically the meaning of such words as “personal.”
Sigcho-Lopez noted that state campaign-spending laws have always barred spending campaign funds on personal items that “do not directly pertain” to “campaign-related activity.”
So, he avers, if elected officials are barred from using campaign funds to pay lawyers to handle their divorces, why should the law allow public officials to use campaign funds to pay a lawyer to handle their criminal indictments?
The appellate court rejected that argument because it found that Solis’ legal fees were generated as a consequence of holding elective office.
“Allegations of misconduct in the discharge of an officeholder’s official duties would not exist independent of the individual’s status as an elected official,” wrote appellate Justice Thomas Hoffman.
Burke is not the only high-profile Illinois politician spending millions of dollars in campaign funds on criminal defense lawyers. Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, identified as the central character in the long-running ComEd bribery scam, is doing the same, although he, unlike Burke, has not been indicted.
Ironically, Solis worked undercover for the FBI, taping conversations with both Burke and Madigan.
In a non-legal argument included in his legal brief, Sigcho-Lopez warned that allowing this practice to continue will create “a moral hazard giving politicians in the second-most-corrupt state of the Union an incentive to engage in unethical and illicit behavior.”
Jim Dey, a member of The
News-Gazette staff, can be reached at email@example.com or