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Billionaire Gov. J.B. Pritzker uses trust to skirt contribution limits in Illinois Supreme Court races

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 11/1/2022 Dan Petrella, Chicago Tribune
Gov. J.B. Pritzker greets constituents as he campaigns in Bellwood on Nov. 1, 2022. © Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS Gov. J.B. Pritzker greets constituents as he campaigns in Bellwood on Nov. 1, 2022.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker is using his personal trust fund to circumvent contribution limits in two races that will determine whether his party maintains its 4-3 majority on the Illinois Supreme Court.

Pritzker earlier this year signed into law a measure that limits contributions to a judicial candidate from “any single person” to $500,000.

In September, Pritzker’s campaign fund, JB for Governor, contributed $500,000 each to the campaigns of Democrats Elizabeth Rochford and Mary Kay O’Brien, who are running for two open seats on the high court. Last week, the billionaire entrepreneur and Hyatt Hotels heir dipped into his personal trust fund, Jay Robert Pritzker Revocable Trust, to give each candidate’s campaign another $500,000, state campaign finance records show.

The Illinois State Board of Elections historically has treated trusts as separate entities for the purpose of enforcing contribution limits, spokesperson Matt Dietrich said.

“Absent a complaint alleging a violation, we would not assess a penalty,” Dietrich said.

Pritzker’s contributions just ahead of the Nov. 8 election come as spending by the candidates and outside groups have once again made Illinois a leader in campaign spending for judicial races. A recent analysis by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice found Illinois has seen the most spending so far among 28 states where voters are electing justices to their high courts this fall.

Last month, a federal judge blocked other judicial contribution limits Pritzker signed into law, including a measure that bans contributions in excess of $500,000 per election cycle from a single source to independent expenditure committees set up to support or oppose judicial candidates.

Before the now-suspended law went into effect, billionaire Citadel founder Ken Griffin, a chief Pritzker political rival, gave $6.25 million to an independent expenditure committee called Citizens for Judicial Fairness that is supporting the Republican candidates for the two open Supreme Court seats, Mark Curran and Michael Burke.

The judge’s ruling did not block the state law’s $500,000 limit on contributions to judicial candidates from a single person.

In defending his additional contributions to the Democratic candidates, Pritzker’s campaign cited Griffin’s financial role in the race.

“The governor believes we can’t let Ken Griffin lie about our Supreme Court candidates and spread Republican misinformation in the final days of the election,” Pritzker spokesperson Natalie Edelstein said in a statement.

Asked about Pritzker’s contributions, Griffin issued a statement repeating his litany of complaints against the administration.

“Illinois leads the nation in unemployment, remains plagued by out-of-control violence, and people and companies continue to exit the state at an alarmingly high rate,” Griffin said in a statement. “I’ll let the facts on J.B. Pritzker’s leadership failing the people of Illinois and his support of judges connected to the corrupt political machine of Mike Madigan speak for themselves.”

Kent Redfield, an expert on campaign finance in Illinois, said the state’s laws are written to be exploited in the way Pritzker has done.

“That doesn’t make him any better or any worse,” said Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “He’s operating within the way the laws are structured.”

Given U.S. Supreme Court rulings and the proliferation of independent expenditure groups, “it’s almost impossible” to limit spending in political campaigns, he said.

Like races up and down the ballot this year, the races for the two largely suburban and exurban Supreme Court districts have focused heavily on the issues of crime and abortion, with Republicans accusing the Democrats of being soft on crime and the Democrats labeling the GOP candidates as threats to reproductive rights in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

In its ads, Citizens for Judicial Fairness has sought to tie Rochford and O’Brien to former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is under indictment on federal corruption charges.

In October, the group reported spending nearly $4.9 million on advertising in the race between Burke, an appointed Supreme Court justice, and O’Brien, an appellate judge, and $1.3 million in the race between Curran, the former Lake County sheriff, and Rochford, an associate judge. By law, the group is prohibited from coordinating with the campaigns.

Two other outside political action committees, Fair Courts America and Restoration PAC, also have been spending to aid the GOP candidates, kicking in nearly $2.3 million for advertising in Curran’s race and nearly $267,000 in Burke’s, state campaign finance records show. They were two of the plaintiffs that sued to block the new limit on contributions to independent expenditure committees in judicial races.

Federal campaign finance records show conservative megadonor Richard Uihlein of Lake Forest has given Restoration PAC — founded by business owner Doug Truax, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in 2014 — nearly $22 million this year, including two contributions totaling nearly $8.7 million in October.

While the group has spent only about $100,000 in the Supreme Court races, it has lent Fair Courts America at least $647,000 this year, federal records show.

Uihlein has been an active backer of Pritzker’s general election opponent, Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia, giving both directly to his campaign to supporting him through PACs like Restoration and People Who Play by the Rules.

In the 2nd Judicial District, which comprises Lake, McHenry, Kane, DeKalb and Kendall counties, Rochford has reported raising nearly $2.8 million since July 1, including the $1 million from Pritzker, state records show. Curran’s campaign has reported raising a little more than $587,000.

In the 3rd District, encompassing DuPage, Will, Kankakee, Grundy, Iroquois, LaSalle and Bureau counties, records show O’Brien has raised nearly $3.4 million, including the $1 million from Pritzker, during the same period, compared with a little more than $500,0000 raised by Burke’s campaign.

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