The dismissal of what a judge called a “retaliatory” defamation lawsuit aimed at chilling free speech seems to have sent shivers down the spines of two local politicians who filed similar lawsuits.
Former McHenry County Board member Michael Rein and board member Chuck Wheeler each have agreed to pay $189 to one of the people they suspect was involved with the printing of a series of campaign ads that were distributed throughout the county before the March 2018 primary election. The flyers’ creators have identified themselves only as the Illinois Integrity Fund – an anonymous group paid for the campaign ads’ printing and distribution.
Neither Rein nor Wheeler could be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
County Board Chairman Jack Franks responded in both Wheeler and Rein’s suits, as well as a third filed by McHenry County Clerk and Recorder Joe Tirio. He also was named as a defendant in a joint defamation suit filed by former County Board candidates Orville Brettman and Ersel Schuster.
Franks has called the lawsuits a conspiracy that was “hatched by Joe Tirio and his political cronies.”
“This was all a conspiracy, as shown by the recent [Illinois] State Board of Elections committee, as well,” Franks said.
The State Board of Elections ruled Wednesday that a complaint filed against Tirio over an unreported in-kind contribution from his campaign committee was filed on justifiable grounds.
Judge Kevin Busch agreed in his ruling earlier this week that the defamation suits were filed strategically. Posts on Brettman’s personal Facebook account that referred to himself, Tirio, Wheeler, Rein and Schuster as the “five musketeers of McHenry County” particularly drove the point home, the judge said.
“It’s understandable that this was, in fact, an orchestrated event,” Busch said Wednesday.
Tirio could not be reached for comment Friday. His attorney, Philip Prossnitz, said he could only speak to his client’s case, which he believes stands on its own.
“We’re singular. We’re in our lane, and we’re going to win,” Prossnitz said.
Rein and Wheeler’s lawsuits are the most recent of four total defamation suits filed in connection with the campaign ads. The situation came to a head in December, when the president of the Chicago-based union mail-order house that printed the flyers named Michael Noonan, the former campaign director of Franks and 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.
Rein originally sought $50,000 in damages for the campaign flyers, which accused him of billing the county $100,000 for health care and mileage reimbursements, and generally not “play[ing] by the rules.”
The former County Board member argued in his Feb. 27 lawsuit that the cartoon-like flyers and their “salacious” claims threatened his good reputation and caused him “mental suffering” and “personal humiliation.”
In 2016, Rein was one of 18 County Board members who voted to rescind the county’s resolution backing former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda.” In exchange, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 dropped its lawsuit alleging that board members met with Rauner before the vote in a violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act. The settlement included paying $25,000 to cover Local 150’s legal fees.
A separate flyer that depicted Wheeler driving a red convertible with $100 bills flying from the backseat accused the board member of billing more than $100,000 in mileage and health care reimbursements throughout the previous four years.
“Wasteful Chuck Wheeler really gets around,” one flyer read, while another claimed, “Wasteful Chuck Wheeler is one arrogant fellow.”
Wheeler was sworn in as a County Board member Dec. 1, 2014, and since then, he never has billed the county for health care reimbursements, he wrote in the complaint. He also said his travel expenses to and from County Board meetings came out to no more than $6,000.
A copy of Wheeler’s expenses showed that the county paid $90,857 in health insurance contributions and reported $3,336 in mileage reimbursements between fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2019.
Now, attorney Charles Philbrick, who represents both Rein and Wheeler, is seeking to have the lawsuits dismissed at a Sept. 19 hearing.
Philbrick filed the motions Friday, two days after a Kane County judge dismissed a similar lawsuit filed by Brettman and Schuster.
Since Busch determined the lawsuit was a violation of the Citizen Participation Act, which protects free political speech, Schuster and Brettman are responsible for paying the Illinois Integrity Fund’s attorneys fees. The exact amount owed to the Chicago firm Baron, Harris and Healey will be determined at the Sept. 19 court date.
Franks said Rein and Wheeler’s decision to dismiss their own lawsuits served as an acknowledgment that they “never had a case.”
“They ought to be ashamed of themselves for clogging the court system,” Franks said. “Shame on them and what they’re trying to do to ruin our democracy. They owe the citizens of this county an apology.”
If Busch grants Philbrick’s request, Wheeler and Rein will repay the defendants for costs they’ve spent litigating the case so far.
The lawsuits also could be refiled within one year of the cases’ dismissals.