Crime & Courts

Players behind 'Illinois Integrity Fund' could be revealed

McHenry County Clerk candidate Joe Tirio talks with the Northwest Herald editorial board on Tuesday, Sep. 25, 2018 in Crystal Lake.
McHenry County Clerk candidate Joe Tirio talks with the Northwest Herald editorial board on Tuesday, Sep. 25, 2018 in Crystal Lake.

The dark money source behind a series of allegedly defamatory campaign flyers could be revealed within the next month.

A Kane County judge on Thursday gave Chicago lawyer Natalie Harris 45 days to disclose further information about a group that identifies itself as the Illinois Integrity Fund. The case will resume Jan. 24 at the Kane County Courthouse.

Nearly a year has passed since McHenry County Clerk and Recorder Joe Tirio filed his defamation case in McHenry County.

The civil suit is rooted in a series of campaign flyers that slammed Tirio before the March 2018 primary election. The more than a year’s worth of litigation has raised questions about the line between defamation and political or anonymous free speech. The flyers alleged Tirio kept a secret “slush fund” – referring to the Recorder’s Office’s automation fund. They also claimed Tirio used taxpayer money to take a vacation to New Mexico. Regarding that allegation, Tirio has said he attended a work-related seminar from Feb. 20 to 24, 2017.

Tirio's defamation claims withstood appellate court scrutiny in September when the Illinois 2nd District Appellate Court ruled that Tirio could move forward with his attempts to identify the anonymous group's leaders in court. Harris, the Chicago lawyer who represents the Illinois Integrity Fund and unnamed defendants, has appealed the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court, which had not issued a ruling as of Thursday morning.

Woodstock attorney Philip Prossnitz filed a petition in April 2018 under an Illinois Supreme Court rule that allowed him to gather information about the flyers' creators as he prepared to file the defamation suit.

Tirio's lawsuit was the first in a series of similar complaints that followed. Former McHenry County Board candidates Ersel Schuster and Orville Brettman were among the second wave of people to file defamation claims against the Illinois Integrity Fund.

Former McHenry County Board member Michael Rein and board member Chuck Wheeler filed lawsuits of their own, which they later voluntarily dismissed after a judge shot down Brettman and Schuster's joint suit.

Schuster and Brettman subsequently were ordered to pay Harris $62,650 in attorney fees since Kane County Judge Kevin Busch determined the defamation case violated Illinois' Anti-SLAPP laws, which protect against the filing of retaliatory lawsuits. Brettman and Schuster also must pay $17,548 to lawyer Steven Laduzinsky for his time and effort defending Sean Tenner, a former aide of Barack Obama and owner of KNI Communications. Tenner and his business were named as defendants in the lawsuit after the president of the Chicago-based union mail-order house that printed the flyers suggested at a December 2018 hearing that Tenner was involved with the Illinois Integrity Fund.

Facing jail time for contempt of court at the McHenry County Courthouse in December, the Chicago printer also named Michael Noonan, McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks’ former campaign director; and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan as potential figures behind the anonymous group.

On Thursday, Busch granted additional sanctions against Brettman and Schuster’s attorney, James Bishop, for filing a frivolous lawsuit. Bishop now must pay $500 to each defendant and an additional $500 to the McHenry County Circuit Clerk's Office.

Wheeler and Rein still have the choice to refile their lawsuits within one year; however, Busch cautioned that doing so would result in $2,500 in fines each, since the flyers in question were not defamatory.

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