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The First Requirement of an Illinois Judge: A Black Belt in Electoral Ju-Jitsu

Daniel J. Kelley 29 January 2010 4 Comments

In a letter to the editor of “The Chicago Tribune,” published on February 23, 2000, a partner at Winston & Strawn found fault with a Republican judicial candidate seeking the nomination to fill a vacancy on the Appellate Court for the Third District. The candidate, Karen Kendall, had responded to a questionnaire from the Illinois Civil Justice League, an advocacy group which has promoted tort reform legislation. The letter entirely failed to mention that the author, Raymond W. Mitchell, and several of his friends were allies of a competing candidate, Justice Judy Koehler, who had been appointed to the appellate bench. Mitchell’s letter blasted Kendall for completing the questionnaire and ignoring the ethical rules applicable to judicial candidates in the process.

Fast forward a decade. As an appointed Circuit Court Judge seeking to be elected to a full term on the bench, the Honorable Raymond W. Mitchell, now assigned to the traffic court, was only too happy to provide a lengthy response to a questionnaire circulated by the Illinois Civil Justice League. In fairness, Mitchell refrained from replying to one question concerning an issue pending before the Supreme Court of Illinois. As for how ethically Mitchell and his campaign operatives have acquitted themselves during the primary campaign, however, remains an open question. You be the judge.

While no one can dispute Mitchell’s academic and professional career experiences are impressive, some of his professional associations may raise eyebrows among the politically astute. Mitchell served as a clerk to James D. Heiple who has the distinction of being the only Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois to be censured by the Judicial Inquiry Board. Heiple wisely opted not to seek retention on the state supreme court and retired from the judiciary upon the expiration of his unpopular and controversy plagued first term.

How many judicial candidates’ finance committees can claim to have accepted a campaign contribution from the family of Federal Inmate # 16627-424 (former Governor George H. Ryan, now in custody in Terre Haute)? Mitchell’s committee can. Mitchell served as one of the defense attorneys for the disgraced former governor. Despite the fact that the evidence of Ryan’s criminality was “overwhelming,” to quote the majority opinion of the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which rejected Ryan’s appeal and request for a new trial, the defense team assembled by the chairman of Winston & Strawn, former Governor James R. Thompson, fought to the last ditch to spare Ryan. The cost of Ryan’s pro bono defense through 2006 has been estimated to be close to $20 million dollars. One wonders how much did the prolonged prosecution cost the taxpayers? Thompson is one of the two chairmen of Mitchell’s campaign fundraising committee. Remarkably, none of these experiences are highlighted in the candidate’s ads or literature.

Mitchell touts himself as the only “endorsed Democratic candidate” in his primary race. This, of course, explains why so many prominent Republicans have chosen to contribute large sums to his campaign fund. As an individual campaign donor, Mitchell, himself, has supported both Democratic and Republican candidates, including both former Governor Rod Blagojevich and his opponent, former Attorney General Jim Ryan, prior to his appointment to the circuit court. If you ever wanted solid proof of the existence of the bipartisan political oligarchy that seeks to run Illinois, which John Kass has labeled “The Combine,” you need to look no further than the financial disclosures filed on Mitchell’s behalf. One of the more curious entries in the financial disclosure reports related to a $2,380.00 expenditure which is discussed at length below.

Some background information is necessary: Sammy Morabito served his political apprenticeship with one of the more scandalous political figures in Chicago, Joseph S. Kotlarz. During the 1983 aldermanic campaign in the 35th Ward, Kotlarz was frequently identified by the media as a lawyer. In actuality, Kotlarz had been employed in a patronage position refueling Chicago police cars with gasoline in the motor pool yard. Kotlarz, who had attended the John Marshall Law School, was subsequently was admitted to the bar on November 9, 1983, almost seven months after the April aldermanic run-off election in which he defeated the incumbent, John C. Marcin. The elderly Marcin had previously been the City Clerk under Mayor Richard J. Daley.

During his two terms on the City Council, a constant criticism of Kotlarz was that he used his office primarily for his personal profit. Kotlarz did not seek re-election in 1991, but a year later, he resumed his political career after being elected to the General Assembly. He was re-elected twice before resigning his office following a criminal conviction in Du Page County. Kotlarz had been charged with the theft from the Illinois State Tollway Authority and Waste Management, Inc., after orchestrating a real estate deal in which Waste Management purchased twelve acres of unused state property in Oakbrook. Kotlarz skimmed off $190,000.00 in fake brokerage fees associated with the transaction. He was sentenced to six months in jail. His conviction was upheld on appeal and he was disbarred on consent as a lawyer.

Following the conviction of his former political patron, Morabito remained active in politics performing work for Kotlarz’s successor in Springfield, Representative Rich Bradley. He secured a job in the Chicago Department of Aviation and, for a time, Morabito’s wife worked as an administrative assistant to Alderman Ted Matlak (32nd). As a veteran political operative, Morabito developed an election related business collecting petition signatures for candidates using his relatives and a crew of paid workers and providing precinct assistance on election days. His political operation has provided services to various other candidates, including Alderman Bernard Stone (50th), former Alderman Ted Matlak (32nd) and judicial candidates such as Thomas J. Byrne and Margarita Kulys Hoffmann. Hoffmann disclosed that her payments to Morabito were for petition circulating. Raymond W. Mitchell’s campaign has also employed Morabito.

Not all of Morabito’s political clients are satisfied customers. During recent electoral board hearings, a gubernatorial candidate, Ed Scanlan, and a state senate candidate, John Nocita, who both relied upon Morabito’s team of mercenaries to provide them with valid petition signatures were removed from the ballot. Scanlan had paid Morabito $3,750.00 for his “petitions,” but did not qualify for the ballot. In a recently published story in the Chicago Sun-Times, it was found that Morabito’s workers had collected petitions for both Dorothy Brown and Terrence O’Brien. The two opposing candidates are both seeking the same nomination for County Board President in the February 2, 2010 primary election.

One of the petition circulators, twenty-three year old Jeremy Dean, described himself as an aspiring stand-up comedian and explained how he received his “marching orders” from Morabito and that his completed petition sheets were collected by “a guy” sent by Morabito “to pick them up.” On one occasion, Morabito, himself, picked up the petitions containing the voter signatures. The open question to be answered is did Dean or any of the other circulators employed by Morabito ever personally appear before a notary public to sign and certify the petition sheets that they circulated as required by law? Index Department records from the office of the Secretary of State indicate that “Sam J. Morabito” holds a current commission as a notary public. Of course, the Illinois Notary Public Act has been interpreted by some to prohibit a notary from acting in an official capacity when he is also a party to the transaction. Where exactly does that leave Morabito?

The supreme irony of this is that Mitchell and his supporters have objected to the method in which his two primary opponents, Bonnie Carol McGrath and Carl B. Boyd, collected their nominating petitions while using similar means to collect some of their own petition pages! Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! Mitchell’s sister, attorney Bridget A. Mitchell, objected to McGrath and her husband, attorney Daniel Crowe, objected to Boyd. Crowe claimed that Boyd’s petitions contained forged signatures and were otherwise insufficient. The objections to Boyd’s candidacy were overruled. In McGrath’s case, one of the objections was that some of the petitions were not properly notarized because certain sheets were picked up and delivered to the notary. Nevertheless, McGrath had more than enough valid petitions to remain on the ballot.

Despite Raymond Mitchell’s former political flirtations with the Grand Old Party, in the objection filed by his sister allegations were made that Bonnie Carol McGrath, the past president of the Decalogue Society of Lawyers, was ineligible to run in the Democratic primary because she once ran as a Republican judicial nominee twelve years earlier. In advancing this argument, the objector ignored three landmark cases of the United States Supreme Court and Illinois Supreme Court that were decided more than thirty years ago that held that such restrictions upon voters and candidates were unconstitutional. The objector also challenged the validity of numerous petition sheets contained within McGrath’s petition. When the objections were overruled, the objector sought judicial review of the electoral board decision and complained that the candidate had an unfair advantage in gathering signatures as part of a slate. Of course, the facts that the law expressly allows such slate petitions and that Mitchell’s circulators had collected signatures in the same manner never entered into any of the arguments made by the objector’s counsels in court.

After Mitchell’s committee filed its campaign finance disclosure reports with the State Board of Elections on January 20, 2010, it was discovered that the committee had been underwriting the costs associated with the two electoral board challenges, including attorney fees and investigative expenses. JRJ Consulting provided a total in kind contribution $2,900.00 for “signature check (sic) and fraud prevention.” Jesse Ruben Juarez, the 1st Ward Democratic Committeeman, is the principal of JRJ Consulting. Juarez has also worked as a paid consultant for Judy Baar Topinka in the recent past. His political army for hire has also branched out into neighboring city wards and suburbia. The JRJ gang played an active role in the last round of municipal elections in suburban Berwyn.

On campaign finance disclosure forms filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections, Mitchell’s campaign committee listed an expenditure of $2,380.00 paid to “Sam Marbito” at “5361 W. Montrose” in Chicago. The purpose of the October 13, 2009 payment, which coincided with the final weeks of the petition circulating period, was for “field consulting.” Since the precinct polling places were not open on that date and there were no signs to post and palm cards to pass out, what type of consulting work could Morabito have been doing at that time other than collecting petitions?

The address listed on the report, signed by Bridget A. Mitchell, in her capacity as the treasurer of her brother’s campaign committee, is non-existent. The approximate location of “5361 W. Montrose” is in the middle of the asphalt and concrete that form the intersection of Montrose and Long Avenues in Chicago. Morabito’s surname is misspelled. These “typographical” errors are not all that uncommon in Cook County elections, and they don’t make the work of opposition researchers to check expenditures any easier. Judges and judicial candidates should avoid even the appearance of impropriety, so maybe the distance permits Mitchell to avoid ward heeling character like Morabito.

It is an offense to willfully file false or incomplete information on a campaign finance report. And with a proper amount of electoral/martial arts oversight, perhaps, this matter will be fully investigated by those permanent agencies empowered to do so. In any event, forgive me if I am less than enthused when Mitchell’s campaign literature emphasizes his integrity as opposed to the blatant hypocrisy and chicanery which have characterized his campaign’s tactics.

**

Daniel J. Kelley is an attorney and a regular contributor to “The Chicago Daily Observer.” During the recent election cycle, he was retained to defend the nominating petitions filed by Bonnie Carol McGrath before the electoral board and various Illinois courts. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the publishers of “The Chicago Daily Observer.”

4 Comments »

  • Jaylin said:

    What a great reruosce this text is.

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