Democratic PAC shifts cash out of its account as it gets hit with one of the biggest state election board fines ever

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A political committee that helped expand the Democratic majority on the Illinois Supreme Court and was backed by Illinois Senate President Don Harmon emptied its bank account just weeks after being notified it faced one of the largest state election fines ever for failing to timely disclose millions of dollars it spent until after last November’s election.

On Tuesday, the State Board of Elections issued a final order assessing $99,500 in fines against the All for Justice political action committee. The action followed a Tribune story earlier this year detailing the PAC’s reporting deficiencies as it spent more than $7.3 million on independent expenditures supporting Democratic Justices Elizabeth Rochford and Mary Kay O’Brien, both of whom won their campaigns and increased the court’s Democratic majority to 5-2 from a previous 4-3 advantage.

All for Justice was notified Aug. 3 by the state elections board it would be fined for 35 specific violations of failing to timely disclose to the public its spending on behalf of Rochford and O’Brien in the crucial closing months before the November 2022 election.

The PAC was given 30 days to appeal or seek a reduction in the fines, but did not do so. Instead, on Aug. 31, it transferred its remaining cash balance of $149,516 to another independent expenditure committee, Chicago Independent Alliance, a PAC that has been dormant since July 2019, six months after it was created.

All for Justice and the Chicago Independent Alliance share the same Chicago address as the Andreou & Casson law firm. Documents filed with the state elections board show Luke Casson, a founding partner of the law firm, as chair and treasurer of All for Justice. On his previous LinkedIn profile, which is no longer active, Casson listed himself as “counsel for the office of the president of the Illinois Senate,” who is Harmon, and political director of the Democratic Party of Oak Park, which is Harmon’s political base.

A day before All for Justice transferred its remaining cash to the Chicago Independent Alliance PAC, the alliance PAC also received a $200 donation from the Andreou & Casson law firm. It was the first contribution the alliance PAC had received in more than 4 ½ years.

State election board officials said they moved forward with a final order to assess the fines against All for Justice — despite its empty bank account — by citing a provision in its administrative rules that makes the officers of a PAC “personally liable” for civil penalties if the PAC “lends or donates funds to a second political committee” while it owes fines to the State Board of Elections.

Casson is the only officer of the All for Justice PAC, according to state election records.

Reached by the Tribune, Casson said he had no comment on the board’s action. He said, “I didn’t know” and “I had no knowledge” of the fines, despite the board’s Aug. 3 notice levying the fines. He did not respond when asked if he was saying he did not receive the board’s notice.

Asked why 28 days after the board’s notice of the fines was issued All for Justice transferred its remaining funds to the dormant Chicago Independent Alliance PAC, Casson responded: “That’s none of your business.” Asked if the funds transfer was an attempt to circumvent paying the fines, Casson said, “It wasn’t. I just said we don’t have any comment.”

The Chicago Independent Alliance PAC was launched with $20,000 in small donations and spent more than $13,000 in its first three months, including $9,000 in support of a Chicago mayoral candidate that it did not name — a violation of state campaign finance laws but it was never cited by the state election board.

The Chicago Independent Alliance previously paid a $950 fine to the state elections board in July 2019 for filing its required quarterly report of funds raised and spent 25 days late, state records showed. The alliance PAC lists its purpose as making “independent expenditures in support of independent candidates and common sense economic policies for growth and prosperity,” state election records showed.

For years, the Chicago Independent Alliance PAC had a cash balance of $5,206. With the transfers from All for Justice PAC and the contribution from Casson’s law firm, the independent alliance PAC reported a cash balance of nearly $155,000.

The All for Justice committee was fined Tuesday by the state elections board for falling to timely file expenditures of $1,000 or more within two days of spending the money. The committee spent heavily on television ads painting Rochford and O’Brien’s Republican opponents as virulent anti-abortion candidates in the months after the U.S. Supreme Court decision ended Roe v. Wade and sent the issue of abortion rights to the states.

Rochford, a Lake County judge, beat Mark Curran, a former Lake County sheriff, with a healthy 55.2% of the vote. O’Brien, an appellate court judge, defeated Michael Burke, a sitting Supreme Court justice who had been appointed to fill a vacancy, with only 51.1% of the vote.

By not following the disclosure rules, the spending by All for Justice — which represented a quarter of the more than $23 million spent overall on the two Supreme Court races and nearly 40% of the money behind the Democratic candidates — went undisclosed until the end of January, months after the election.

All for Justice was formed in August 2022 as an independent expenditure political action committee, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose candidates but cannot coordinate its spending with the contenders it backs.

Because it began spending money on Sept. 29, within 60 days of the Nov. 8, 2022, election, All for Justice was required to file detailed public reports within two days for each expenditure of $1,000 or more that it made on behalf of Rochford and O’Brien or against Curran and Burke. Instead, they filed nothing until amended reports were filed months after the election.

Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield and a campaign finance expert, called the actions of All for Justice in shedding its bank account “the moral and ethical equivalent of hiding assets before filing for divorce or bankruptcy.”

“The Illinois campaign finance law relies on transparency and timely reporting to (ensure) that the general public and the news media know who is supporting a candidate for public office,” Redfield said. “When the system is working correctly, citizens and the news media know in real time where the money supporting elections comes from and who it is benefiting.”

But, he said, “A willful violation of this magnitude strikes at the heart of the trust and sense of legitimacy that is necessary to sustain our political system.”

Although All for Justice did not file timely expenditure reports, it did file the mandated timely reports on money it was taking in from contributors, indicating an awareness of the state’s campaign finance laws.

All for Justice filed quarterly reports on what it raised and spent, but because the filing of the report covering Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, 2022, was not required until Jan. 17, it wasn’t until more than two months after the election that the group publicly disclosed spending nearly $6 million of its $7.3 million in independent expenditures.

And even then, it did not list which candidates it spent money on to benefit from the work of specific vendors, such as those involved in nearly $6.3 million in TV ads and nearly $800,000 in mailers, as required by law.

Election authorities, alerted to the transparency issue by Redfield and the Tribune earlier this year, contacted representatives of All for Justice and it filed amended quarterly reports providing the required detailed expenditure information Jan. 31 — weeks after Rochford and O’Brien were sworn in.

Harmon, the state Senate president, was a major donor to All for Justice, contributing $500,000 from his personal campaign fund and another $200,000 from the Illinois Senate Democratic Fund he controls.

The Harmon-backed donations were part of nearly $1.1 million in contributions from Democratic politicians, including $75,000 from state Rep. Jay Hoffman of Swansea and five senators who gave $50,000 each.

Another nearly $3.4 million came in to All for Justice from organized labor groups, while lawyers, law firms and related entities provided more than $2.3 million to the group.

Overall, All for Justice spent $3.7 million on behalf of Rochford and more than $3.6 million on behalf of O’Brien, election reports ultimately showed.

Harmon has played a leading role in the passage of several campaign finance reform initiatives.

A spokesman for Harmon said Casson acts as an outside legal counsel for the Senate president’s office and is not a state employee.

Asked through his spokesmen about what relationship Harmon has with Casson and the actions Casson has taken divesting funds from the All for Justice PAC, Harmon did not directly respond.

Instead, Harmon released as statement saying, “All political committees in Illinois have a responsibility and duty to comply with all applicable campaign finance regulations.”

When the Tribune first reported issues surrounding the transparency of All for Justice’s spending in February, Harmon said in a statement that if the state elections board “needs new tools” to make disclosures “more intuitively and more timely, I am happy to work with them to achieve the shared goal of meaningful campaign finance transparency.”

The General Assembly took no action on the issue this year.