A ruling yesterday from the Illinois Supreme Court narrowly approved the use of political campaign funds for legal defense by former 25th Ward Ald. Danny Solis.
While it is disappointing that Illinois law does not explicitly prohibit the use of campaign funds for legal defense against criminal charges, the Better Government Association commends the court’s narrow reading of the current law and rejection of the defense’s arguments that any such expenses would inherently be “customary and reasonable expenses of an officeholder in connection with the performance of governmental and public service functions.”
The court held that, in the absence of an explicit prohibition, uses of campaign funds for legal fees must be considered on a case-by-case basis by the Board of Elections to determine whether the expense is personal or related to the individual’s public role. Federal election law follows similar guidelines: the Federal Election Commission does not expressly prohibit spending on legal fees but considers in each case whether they constitute personal expenses.
The Supreme Court ruling came in a matter arising from a complaint filed with the state Board of Elections, which had approved Solis’ use of 25th Ward campaign funds to cover his legal costs arising from a federal investigation into public corruption. Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), who succeeded Solis, initiated the complaint.
Because Solis was cooperating with a federal investigation and not yet charged with wrongdoing, the Supreme Court upheld the Board of Elections’ determination that the expense was incurred to defray “expenses of an officeholder in connection with the performance of governmental and public service function.” In fact, the court ruled, Solis in cooperating with the investigation was “using his official capacity to expose public corruption.”
The narrow and case-specific basis of the Supreme Court ruling leaves the door open to similar challenges against the campaign committees of politicians who have been indicted for alleged wrongdoing, which includes current Chicago Alderpersons Ed Burke (14th) and Carrie Austin (34th), as well as former Speaker of the House Michael J. Madigan. For those defendants, no complaints relating to legal fees have been filed against their campaign committees, according to the Board of Elections complaint information database.
The General Assembly could of course prevent further case-by-case decisions by amending the election code to strictly prohibit the use of campaign funds to pay for legal fees unrelated to seeking public office. In the absence of any such clarifying language, it is heartening that the Supreme Court ruling on the Solis case has left the door open for further challenges.
Director of Policy, Better Government Association