Metro-East News

Free speech or buying justice? Local law firms among top campaign donors

Four law firms with metro-east connections are among the top firms donating to political campaigns in Illinois, according to a study released by the Illinois Civil Justice League.

But local plaintiff attorneys say they’re only trying to keep up with campaign money spent by businesses and the groups who share their interests.

The study, released in partnership with Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch, noted that the top 25 donor firms and their lawyers made $35.25 million in campaign contributions to the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association’s political action committee and directly to candidates in the state in the last 15 years.

Four law firms with local connections are among those top 25 donor law firms, according to the study. The four are: Korein Tillery, which used to have an office in Swansea, Simmons Hanly Conroy, which is based in Alton, Keefe, Keefe and Unsell, which is based in Belleville, and Gori, Julian and Associates in Edwardsville.

Thomas Keefe Jr., whose firm donated about $1 million to candidates during the 15-year period, said he was “certainly not ashamed to be on that list.”

That’s because he said the amount of money trial lawyers have contributed to candidates and causes “can’t even begin to come within a thousand miles of the amount of money” spent by PACs supported by members of the business community that don’t have to disclose the source of their donations thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizen’s United case.

Keefe said his and his firm’s contributions over the years were made in the exercise of their First Amendment rights, just the same as those opposing PACs.

“I believe our clients...need people who are going to contribute money to the political process to support the right to trial by jury, workmen’s compensation laws and collective bargaining laws,” Keefe said. “So when they want to attack lawyers for giving our money, at least we show where it comes from and put our names on it. I am not ashamed of any money I have given. I wish I could give more.”

I believe our clients...need people who are going to contribute money to the political process to support the right to trial by jury, workmen’s compensation laws and collective bargaining laws. So when they want to attack lawyers for giving our money, at least we show where it comes from and put our names on it. I am not ashamed of any money I have given. I wish I could give more.

Tom Keefe Jr., attorney with Keefe, Keefe and Unsell

Not unrelated to campaign contributions, Keefe’s firm was named in a Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission alleging the firm tried to circumvent campaign contribution limits by spreading contributions to C.J. Baricevic among attorneys, staff and a spouse. Baricevic is a Belleville attorney and Democrat running for the 12th Congressional District that covers the metro-east and part of Southern Illinois.

The individual donations to Baricevic’s campaign were made in March and reached the maximum limit allowed by law. The Foundation alleges Keefe’s firm reimbursed the employees in exchange for making the donations. Federal election law prohibits someone making donations in the name of another.

The Foundation claims the donations were made in order to curry favor with Baricevic’s father, Judge John Baricevic, who is chief judge of the 20th Judicial Circuit that covers St. Clair County.

Keefe said he found it ironic the complaint about his firm’s campaign donations was filed by a non-profit organization that also collects donations. He wouldn’t comment on the complaint because it’s under investigation by the Federal Election Commission.

Baricevic and his campaign also were named in the complaint. The Foundation claims Baricevic broke election rules when he accepted the donations.

“This is a political attack. The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust is a Republican-backed, anti-labor group, heavily financed by (Republican Illinois Governor) Bruce Rauner, which files frivolous legal complaints against Democratic campaigns all over the country,” said Barzin Emami, spokesman for Baricevic’s campaign. “The campaign has complied with all FEC regulations and federal election laws.”

The campaign contributions scrutinized by the League have gone to legislators, people running for statewide office, state’s attorneys, county board chairmen and judges, among other elected offices.

“What’s interesting, if not surprising, is the fact that the biggest trial lawyer donations supported campaigns in Cook, Madison and St. Clair Counties — each widely known as once and future judicial hellholes,” said John Pastuovic, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, which primarily is funded by business itnerests. “And when one considers that these counties also host the state’s highest concentrations of lawsuits, it’s fair to ask: Is justice for sale in Illinois?”

The study shows 98 percent of the contributions went to incumbents or other Democrats.

“While ITLA’s PAC and plaintiffs’ firms donated millions, policymakers they supported made Illinois tort laws even more to the trial lawyers’ liking,” Pastuovic said.

Pastuovic said laws supported by plaintiff attorneys are generally harmful to business.

“Businesses aren’t coming here, they are leaving here. And the ones that are staying here, aren’t expanding here,” he said.

Businesses aren’t coming here, they are leaving here. And the ones that are staying here, aren’t expanding here.

John Pastuovic, president of Illinois Civil Justice League

In its study, the League analyzed data from the State Board of the Elections from the last 15 years which showed:

▪  Korein Tillery donated $2.8 million to candidates and $256,000 to the ITLA PAC in the 15-year period.

▪  Simmons Hanly Conroy donated $4.9 million to candidates and $206,000 to the ITLA PAC.

▪  Gori, Julian and Associates donated $1.38 million to candidates.

▪  Keefe’s firm donated $968,000 to candidates and $145,000 to the PAC.

None of the other firms responded to calls and messages for comment from the News-Democrat.

“It’s really hard to dispute the numbers,” said Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch. “The numbers are what they are, what voters have to take into consideration, what does this mean and ask themselves will this affect their behavior, especially when it comes to judicial elections.”

It’s really hard to dispute the numbers. The numbers are what they are, what voters have to take into consideration, what does this mean and ask themselves will this affect their behavior, especially when it comes to judicial elections.

Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch

The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association defended donations given by attorneys to candidates around the state, calling the Illinois Civil Justice League study propaganda and questioning the study’s methodology.

“The amount of donations made by trial lawyers to support candidates who believe that corporations, insurance companies, Wall Street banks, and extremely wealthy individuals should not be allowed to injure, kill or defraud everyday citizens is dwarfed by the tens of millions spent by big businesses that want to change Illinois’ laws so they avoid accountability when they hurt workers and prey on consumers,” the Association said in a statement.

It also said donations made by attorneys amount to far less than what was donated by Gov. Bruce Rauner in one election—about $63 million.

“There is simply no comparison to what Rauner, his fellow billionaires and businesses spend on elections compared to trial lawyers,” the Association said.

But the Civil Justice League and Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch say the contributions help prevent tort reform from taking place and allows for lawsuit abuse.

“How do those judges get to those spots? They get money from personal injury lawyers, who continue to fund their campaigns, and they get favorable outcomes, favorable judgments, that then fuel more campaign dollars into the system,” Akin said. “It’s an endless cycle. We need to end the cycle.”

Ironically, with regard to the endless dumping of money into politics, Keefe agreed. “Nothing would make me happier than to see Citizen’s United overturned,” he said.

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