Everything old is new again.
Minority Leader Tony McCombie, of Savanna, on Aug. 8 filed House Bill 4119, an attempt to amend the state Election Code. The official synopsis:
“Prohibits a political committee from making certain expenditures to provide a defense in any criminal case or a defense in a civil case against any claims that a person has committed misconduct in his or her capacity as a public official, any claims of sexual harassment, or any claims of discrimination. Requires that a person found to have used campaign contributions in violation of the Code shall return contributions to the contributor or pay to the State if the contributor cannot be identified or reimbursed. Requires the political committee to include information on the contributions returned to the contributor or paid to the State in the committee’s quarterly report to the State Board of Elections.”
If that language sounds familiar, that’s because it’s virtually identical to House Bill 2929, from the previous General Assembly session. State Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, filed that bill on February 2021, and it ultimately died in the Rules Committee.
McCombie added her name as a co-sponsor of that bill on March 10, 2022, two weeks before the Illinois Supreme Court, in a 4-0 opinion, affirmed a state appeals panel’s ruling in a dispute between Byron Sigcho-Lopez and the Board of Elections.
Sigcho-Lopez, the 25th Ward Chicago alderman, alleged the campaign committee of his predecessor, Daniel Solis, used $220,000 to pay a law firm connected to a federal investigation over whether he took donations from real estate developers in exchange for favorable outcomes from the zoning committee he chaired.
The ISBE dismissed the complaint 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.”
“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,” Justice David Overstreet wrote in the affirming opinion. “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.”
McCombie’s attempt will fail, as Mazzochi’s, without Democrats’ support. The new bill’s text isn’t yet available, but the old one doesn’t delineate between defenses of provable federal crimes and spurious personal allegations.
Campaign contributions should fund politics, not legal bills, but lawmakers won’t put themselves in a position of being unable to afford defense from meritless litigation.