A judge on Wednesday dismissed what he called a “retaliatory” defamation lawsuit against an anonymous dark money source. Now the pair of former McHenry County Board candidates who filed the suit must pay the faceless group’s attorneys’ fees.
Kane County Judge Kevin Busch dismissed Orville Brettman and Ersel Schuster’s lawsuit against the Illinois Integrity Fund, ruling that the civil suit was without merit and filed in violation of Illinois’ Anti-SLAPP laws.
Attorney James Bishop, who represents Schuster and Brettman, maintained Wednesday that his clients are “upstanding citizens,” who were falsely portrayed in 2018 campaign flyers.
Anti-SLAPP laws, established in the Citizen Participation Act, are in place to protect citizens’ from retaliatory lawsuits that attempt to chill free speech by using intimidation and expensive court-related costs.
“I think that today was a victory for those who are committed to the facts and a reminder that the truth still matters,” Chicago attorney Natalie Harris said.
The Illinois Integrity Fund
Harris represents the Illinois Integrity Fund – the faceless group that was responsible for a series of campaign flyers slamming Brettman and Schuster before the March primary election.
In a joint lawsuit filed Feb. 19, Schuster and Brettman alleged the flyers wrongfully accused them of having histories of “criminality and hate.” The flyers referenced news articles reporting Brettman’s alleged ties to a paramilitary group called the “Legion of Justice,” and a police investigation tied to an online death threat that was traced back to Schuster’s home.
Additional suits filed by McHenry County Clerk and Recorder Joe Tirio, former McHenry County Board member Michael Rein, and County Board member Chuck Wheeler also allege defamation by the Illinois Integrity Fund.
In December, the president of the Chicago-based union mail-order house that printed the flyers named Michael Noonan, McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks’ former campaign director; Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan; and Sean Tenner, a former aide of Barack Obama and owner of KNI Communications, as the people behind the Illinois Integrity Fund.
Franks, who introduced the Citizen Participation Act, was named as a defendant in Brettman and Schuster’s lawsuit.
“These guys set out to stifle all public discourse and they did it knowing that what they were saying wasn’t true,” Franks said. “...That’s why this law was written and they’re going to pay a very, very steep price.”
After months of litigation, Busch dismissed the lawsuit, in part, because he believed the Illinois Integrity Fund had reason to believe the accusations on the flyers were true. He also questioned the timing of the lawsuit, which came on the heels of a similar suit filed by Tirio.
“These are campaign materials. There’s no other way to describe them ...” Busch said. “These clearly are the type of actions that are protectable or protected in the [Citizen Participation] Act.”
The death threat
Last year, an apparent online threat against Franks’ life led police to Schuster’s home, where officials say the IP addresses associated with the comment originated.
A blogger commented “I know a fellow who specializes in terminating weasels of all kinds. His prices are very reasonable. $5,000 each. If you need it to look like an accident[,] $10,000 each. Let me know on this blog …”
Franks interpreted the comment as an anti-Semitic threat against his life, and notified Lakewood police, who traced the comment back to Schuster’s home.
On July 17, 2018, officers told Franks that McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally would forgo criminal charges. Although the online remark didn’t lead to charges, Busch agreed the post “can only be interpreted as someone who was offering their services to obtain a hit man.”
Brettman and Schuster declined to comment on the judge’s decision after court Wednesday, and referred questions to Bishop.
“Here you have two absolutely upstanding citizens who have been in this community for 40 years each,” Bishop said.
The evidence included in attorney Natalie Harris’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit, however, painted a different picture.
According to the transcript from Brettman’s 1975 testimony before a Cook County grand jury, the former Carpentersville village president and police officer was involved in a right-wing extremist group that was responsible for several raids and the bombing of an Elgin church.
Brettman has publicly denied his involvement with the Legion of Justice and claimed an unknown group of socialists fabricated the grand jury transcript that was attached to one of Harris’ motions.
Busch’s decision, however, partially relied on an affidavit in which the prosecutor who questioned Brettman in 1975 verified the transcript’s accuracy.
“When he says Mr. Brettman admitted to at least two break-ins, burglaries and theft, I believe that it’s true,” Busch said.
Excerpts of the same transcript had also appeared in newspapers throughout the region for years, but never resulted in a defamation lawsuit.
“[Brettman] sought legal opinion and he could not find a lawyer that would take on a newspaper publicly,” Bishop said.
Harris has appealed a McHenry County judge’s ruling that the flyers naming Tirio could be considered defamatory. Harris and Tirio’s attorney, Philip Prossnitz, are scheduled to give oral arguments before an appellate court Aug. 27.
In the meantime, the litigation has left a bad taste in the mouths of some Republicans, including state Rep. David McSweeney, Barrington Hills.
“The party has hit rock bottom with losers like Brettman, Schuster and Tirio, too,” McSweeney said. “These are extremists who absolutely do not represent the Republican Party ...”