Crime & Courts

Judge to hear case on political attack ads against McHenry County recorder in August

Judge expected to hear free speech, defamation case in August

McHenry County Recorder Joe Tirio speaks during a McHenry County Board Consolidation Committee meeting June 9, 2017.
McHenry County Recorder Joe Tirio speaks during a McHenry County Board Consolidation Committee meeting June 9, 2017.

The sharp-tongued, satirical nature of American politics is a long-standing practice and doesn’t make any exceptions for local politics, attorney Natalie Harris said.

Harris and Woodstock attorney Philip Prossnitz will go toe-to-toe Aug. 23 over the content of three attack ads that targeted McHenry County Recorder Joe Tirio and were mailed to voters before the March primary.

A judge could make a ruling next month that would allow Prossnitz to move forward and demand answers to a list of questions that could reveal the person or people behind the Illinois Integrity Fund. Harris has asked for the case to be dismissed.

The language on the flyers, along with cartoonish depictions of the county recorder as a burglar, were meant to harm Tirio’s reputation and misguide voters, Prossnitz, who is Tirio’s attorney, has said.

The mailers’ accusatory language, however, is protected under the First Amendment, Harris wrote in a court filing in which she compared the flyers to the Federalist Papers that were printed anonymously in 1788 to promote the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

“Tirio is attempting ... to expose anonymous speakers and chill their political speech – and that of others who might also dare to speak out against him – by filing suit against them as Election Day approaches,” Harris wrote.

The flyers

In February and March, hundreds of McHenry County households received flyers that accused Tirio of keeping a “secret taxpayer-funded slush fund” to take trips and pad his payroll with “patronage workers.” Each of three variations of the mailers had a return address made out to the Illinois Integrity Fund, 2815 Forbs Ave., Hoffman Estates.

A petition that Prossnitz filed in April details why he thinks the Chicago-based printing company Breaker Press and McHenry County clerk candidate Janice Dalton might have information that could expose the faceless entity behind the mailers.

The flyers, which refer to Tirio as “crooked Joe” and accuse the recorder of “sleazy” Chicago-style politics, are par for the course in today’s political climate, Harris, who represents the respondents, said in a written objection.

“The mask image is nothing more than a modern-day political cartoon. No reasonable citizen seeing the mask image on a flyer would believe that Tirio is literally a caricatured burglar or comic strip villain,” Harris wrote.

The accusations that appeared beside the doctored image were more than a playful jab, Tirio said.

“I can’t tell you the number of people who came up to me, called me, texted me,” questioning whether the accusations were true, he said.

The ‘slush fund’

The “taxpayer slush fund” mentioned in the attack ads against Tirio is a reference to the recorder’s automation fund to help digitize records, he said. Furthermore, it isn’t funded by taxpayers, Prossnitz wrote.

“The budget of the county recorder’s office is generated entirely from user fees collected from people [and] companies using the services of the office,” Prossnitz said. “No county taxpayer funds are used to fund the operations of the county recorder’s office.”

The use of “slush fund,” however, was a mere suggestion that the recorder’s office automation fund surplus has grown excessive under Tirio’s watch, Harris said.

The automation fund’s surplus for fiscal 2017 and fiscal 2018 increased under Tirio’s watch by $293,115, Harris said.

Tirio cited the increase in fees and charges for the 2018 automation fund to savings made by going digital.

Trip to New Mexico

From Feb. 20 to 24, 2017, Tirio attended the Property Records Industry Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The recorder submitted vouchers for reimbursements of meals totaling about $49.38 for the three days, Prossnitz said.

The flyers claim Tirio took a vacation to Albuquerque, New Mexico, on the county’s dime with a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek statement, poking fun at business trips that tend to be more leisure than lecture, Harris wrote.

“He flew by commercial airline to and from the conference,” Prossnitz said. “He took no personal detours or excursions from the conference.”

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