Judge throws out challenge to Nov. 3 race for La Salle County state’s attorney

Belt grants sanctions for ‘baseless’ claims against county clerk

Todd Martin remains state’s attorney of La Salle County. In a ruling published Friday, a judge threw out an attempt to overturn the Nov. 3 race for prosecutor.

Grundy County Judge Scott M. Belt also dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning the case cannot be re-filed, and granted sanctions (a portion of the attorneys fees and costs) for unsubstantiated allegations made against La Salle County Clerk Lori Bongartz.

“This court finds that plaintiff’s (county GOP chairman Larry Smith’s) conduct was willful and harmful to both the judicial system and the defendant, Lori Bongartz,” Belt wrote in the 11-page ruling.

“I’m very happy with the outcome,” Bongartz said. “I’m just glad that it’s over with so I can continue with my work here at the office.”

Smith, when asked if he would appeal, replied at midday Friday, “We just received the judge’s filing and are reviewing it. We don’t have a statement at this time.”

Martin issued a statement saying there is “a decorum that needs to be followed” when pleading lawsuits and Belt “made it extremely clear that decorum wasn’t followed, that it was a lot of allegations unsupported by specific facts.”

“But because I was not a party to the lawsuit, I’m not aware of the circumstances surrounding the pleadings,” Martin said. “I’m happy the court ruled the way it did. We have a lot of hard work ahead at the state’s attorney’s office and this allows us to move forward.”

Smith had challenged two Democratic wins, Martin’s and that of state Rep. Lance Yednock (D-Ottawa) when he filed around Thanksgiving, alleging mail-in votes had been mishandled and should be voided. If granted, voiding the mail-in votes would have effectively reversed both races.

The portion of the complaint trying to overturn Yednock’s win was later withdrawn. To the end, Smith tried to void Martin’s win and to reinstate former state’s attorney Karen Donnelly.

But the case took a turn weeks ago when Bongartz and her lawyer, Streator attorney Matt Krueger, asked to dismiss the case on the grounds that Smith and his lawyer, Sandwich attorney William Hotopp, accused Bongartz of committing fraud and official misconduct without sufficient evidence.

“Nobody deserves to have her reputation tarnished,” Krueger said at a previous hearing. “Nobody deserves to be accused of fraud. Nobody deserves to be accused of committing a felony.”

Hotopp said then Smith had simply updated his pleadings as new information became available and dismissal would be an extreme remedy.

“These are not facts under his control,” Hotopp argued, “and this is not disregard for the court’s authority.”

Belt didn’t see it that way. In his ruling, the judge ordered Bongartz reimbursed for some legal fees for the “baseless and prejudicial allegations” against her. Belt ruled in her favor on additional grounds.

First, the judge ruled Martin should have been made a party to the lawsuit out of the gate but the GOP didn’t try to bring Martin into it until a hearing on June 3, more than seven months after filing the case.

Second, Smith and Hotopp never produced enough evidence to show “a reasonable likelihood” the election was turned by a specific number of disputed ballots and then asked Belt “to invalidate the entire county-wide election results.”

Tom Collins

Tom Collins covers criminal justice in La Salle County.