The endgame of McHenry County Clerk and Recorder Joe Tirio’s crusade against the dark money cell known as the Illinois Integrity Fund is a simple one: stop political operatives dealing in the shadows to defame candidates and skew their reputations in the minds of voters.
That’s what Tirio says happened to him.
Before the March primary, his name appeared on large, bold campaign mailers next to the words “crook” and “slush fund,” his face edited to include a robber’s mask atop a body stuck in a villainous “gotcha” pose.
“People are tired of this crap,” said Tirio, who on the Friday afternoon before government officials left their offices for Christmas holidays scored the first victory in a long, complicated lawsuit to unmask the people behind the Illinois Integrity Fund.
Facing jail time on a contempt charge that day, Richard Lewandowski, president of Breaker Press – the Chicago-based union mail-order house that printed the primary attack mailers – named Michael Noonan, McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks’ former campaign director, and Sean Tenner, a former aide of Barack Obama and owner of KNI Communications.
Lewandowski told the courts that he had “reason to believe” through third-party rumblings that Franks, too, was involved in the campaign. Franks called what happened in court “much ado about nothing.”
To Tirio, the case has much more value than the chairman is giving it.
He and Phillip Prossnitz, his Woodstock attorney, now are developing a defamation lawsuit they hope may uncover more details of a story that could include a nefarious plotline.
“The first part was to unmask them,” Tirio said.
The next part is to see whether they broke election code.
The Illinois State Board of Elections requires organizations to file a statement of organization if they spend more than $5,000 on campaign materials.
To date, the Illinois Integrity Fund has not registered any paperwork with the board.
Officials said it is unknown how much the group spent on the mailers.
The elections board sent a message to the group’s Hoffman Estates address March 16.
“This letter is to inform you of the possible need for you to file reports under the Campaign Disclosure Act,” wrote Tom Newman, director of the Campaign Disclosure Division. “It has come to our attention that your committee has been sending campaign advertising mailings to area residents.”
The board received no reply.
“I don’t know how much they’ve spent,” Tirio said. “You don’t do a dozen mailers – and for me, they also had a website and Google ads and Facebook ads – you can’t do that for $5,000.”
The consequences of dark money political spending is the equivalent of an expensive traffic violation, according to a source in the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office. Committees that fail to report could face a fine of $50 a business day up to a maximum of $5,000, or $10,000 for statewide political committees.
Tirio described it as “a heavy-handed slap on the wrist,” a punishment he said is worth the legal work if it means preventing future anonymous attacks.
McHenry County Board members are watching the case to see how it concludes. Former state Sen. Pamela Althoff, now representing voters in District 4, is one of them.
“I think we need to see where it ends up,” Althoff said. “I don’t think we need to immediately react. We need to wait for everything to play out. There’s been no conclusion. There’s been no definitive pointing of fingers. There’s been no very specific connecting of the dots.”
To Althoff, the value of the case lies in holding people accountable for their political strategies.
“You can’t make attacks without standing behind [them],” Althoff said. “This was an [instance] where Mr. Tirio was attacked, and he didn’t know who his attackers were. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.”