A political committee, funded in part by Senate President Don Harmon’s campaign that helped expand the Democratic majority on the Illinois Supreme Court, failed to file timely campaign reports as required by state law and didn’t disclose the bulk of its $7.3 million in spending until after the election.
The committee — All for Justice — spent heavily on television ads in support of winning Democratic Justices Elizabeth Rochford and Mary Kay O’Brien. The commercials painted Republican opponents as virulent anti-abortion candidates, politically potent attacks given the U.S. Supreme Court decision that sent the issue of abortion rights to the states only months earlier.
The failure of All for Justice to follow the disclosure guidelines mandated by state election law obscured its pro-Democratic spending in the critical months preceding the November races in which the partisan balance of the Illinois Supreme Court was up for grabs.
“It’s amazing,” said Kent Redfield, an Illinois campaign finance expert and professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “It denied the public, the news media and the people who participated in the campaigns full knowledge of what’s going on.”
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 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 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 Republican opponents Mark Curran and Michael Burke. Instead, they filed nothing.
While the public and opponents saw the group’s TV ads, the lack of timely spending reports meant no one knew how much it kept spending to advocate for the two Democrats or to oppose the two Republicans.
In contrast, independent expenditure groups that funded the Republican candidates filed the required ongoing spending reports.
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.
The stringent public filing rule is an essential requirement of the state campaign finance law that is designed to give voters, watchdogs and opponents a full understanding of how and where independent expenditure groups are spending their money.
“This is the heart of campaign disclosure,” said Redfield, who helped shape the law now in place. “We try to make it transparent so that people, when people are voting, they know who’s supporting a candidate, and they can take that into account.”
All for Justice also failed to file detailed spending reports as part of a state law that requires campaign committees report financial statements at the end of each quarter of the calendar year.
And with its first expenditure of over $100,000, it technically should have filed a statement on Sept. 29 that its spending exceeded campaign limits — though the spending of the candidates and other committees had lifted contribution caps in both races.
In general, the timely filing of the two-day expenditure reports by independent expenditure committees is also important for determining whether outside spending in aggregate exceeds campaign limits, which then would allow all candidates and committees to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, said Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections.
“I am shocked by that,” said former state Sen. John Millner, chairman for the losing GOP campaign of then-Justice Michael Burke.
“He tried to do everything by the rules and then you hear this,” Millner said. “I don’t quite understand it.”
Had the All for Justice spending been made known on time, Millner said, the Burke campaign would have made the public aware of the extra money being poured into Democratic campaigns and that probably would have generated more GOP volunteers and contributions.
On documents filed with the State Board of Elections, Luke Casson is listed as chair and treasurer of All for Justice. Casson is a founding partner of the Andreou & Casson law firm. In addition, on his LinkedIn profile, Casson lists himself as “counsel for the office of the president of the Illinois Senate,” who is Harmon. He also lists himself as political director of the Democratic Party of Oak Park, which is Harmon’s political base as Oak Park Township Democratic committeeperson on the state Democratic Party Central Committee.
Neither Casson nor any other representatives of All for Justice immediately responded to requests for comment.
Harmon has played a leading role in the passage of laws aimed at prohibiting major state contractors from making political donations and establishing campaign contribution limits.
A spokesman for Harmon said Casson often acts as an outside legal counsel for the Senate president’s office and is not a state employee. And in a statement, Harmon, who was a donor but not an officer of the All for Justice PAC, made no reference to his professional or political relationship with Casson.
“Everybody is supposed to follow the rules,” the Senate president said. “If something isn’t disclosed in a timely manner, it should be corrected immediately. And if the Board of Elections needs new tools to make sure this happens more intuitively and more timely, I am happy to work with them to achieve the shared goal of meaningful campaign finance transparency.”
Failure to comply with the campaign disclosure rules is punishable by fines of up to $3,000 for each violation after three instances where the law was not followed. There were 35 instances that the group failed to file the state required two-day spending report. Levying fines is subject to a decision by the eight members of the elections board — four Democrats and four Republicans — that can act on its own or based on the filing of a campaign finance complaint.
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 nearly $7.5 million in total 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, contacted representatives of All for Justice by phone and it filed amended quarterly reports providing the required detailed expenditure information late Tuesday — weeks after Rochford and O’Brien were sworn in.
Wins by their Republican opponents would have flipped the partisan balance from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 4-3 Republican edge.
But Rochford, a Lake County judge, beat Curran, a former Lake County sheriff, with a healthy 55.2% of the vote. By a slimmer margin, O’Brien, an appellate court justice, defeated Burke, a sitting Supreme Court justice who had been appointed to fill a vacancy, with only 51.1% of the vote. The victories gave Democrats a 5-2 edge on the court.
The Rochford and O’Brien wins also were aided by the legislature’s Democratic majority, which redrew the geographic boundaries of court districts outside Cook County to favor their candidates.
Harmon was one of the major givers to All for Justice, with $500,000 from his personal campaign fund and another $200,000 from his Illinois Senate Democratic Fund.
The Harmon-backed donations were part of nearly $1.1 million in contributions from Democratic politicians, including $75,000 from 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 about $7.3 million in the Supreme Court races — $3.7 million on behalf of Rochford and more than $3.6 million on behalf of O’Brien, according to new election reports.
All four Democrats and Republicans vying for the two Supreme Court seats, which come with 10-year terms, benefited from independent expenditures, but only All for Justice appeared to break disclosure rules, Redfield said.
Republicans, for example, benefited from the independent expenditures of Citizens for Judicial Fairness, which received millions of dollars from Citadel CEO Ken Griffin and spent $4.6 million in the Burke race against O’Brien and $730,933 on the Curran contest, records showed. People Who Play by the Rules PAC, an independent expenditure committee funded heavily by Uline products billionaire Richard Uihlein, also spent more than $230,000 on both the Curran and Burke races.
Personal PAC Independent Committee, an abortion rights group, spent more than $940,000 on behalf of each of the two Democrats, Rochford and O’Brien, and Everytown for Gun Safety Illinois also independently spent about $125,000 on behalf of each of the two winners.
When all individual candidate and independent spending is tallied together, however, the All for Justice spending made a significant difference.
The total of all pro-Rochford spending amounted to nearly $8.8 million compared with Curran’s $1.7 million, showing that the All for Justice money only enhanced Rochford’s already sizable lead in all dollars spent to support her.
But in the other, more closely contested race, the All for Justice money shifted the overall spending advantage from Burke to O’Brien.
Counting the All for Justice money, the pro-O’Brien spending from all sources tallied $6.8 million — more than $1 million than the pro-Burke money spent.
The All for Justice spending activity fits into concerns often raised by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
State and federal disclosure laws “are very bad and very easily manipulated when it comes to timing by these groups,” said Douglas Keith, a Brennan Center attorney specializing in judicial elections and spending.
“Any group that’s getting involved in a state Supreme Court election to the tune of seven figures is a very sophisticated political actor, and they know how to maneuver around these laws to hide whatever it is they want to hide,” Keith said.
While the group faces a potential of thousands of dollars in fines, the board lacks an enforcement mechanism unlike political candidates who cannot appear on a ballot unless fines are paid. Redfield also said any penalty would be little more than a slap on the wrist compared to the political impact of failing to timely report its spending in the closing weeks of the election.
“I certainly hope there will be a bipartisan effort to tighten up the law so there won’t be a repeat of this,” Redfield said.