A Cook County judge was correct in saying a dispute over the
campaign funds left after the passing of former Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar
Topinka should have been heard in a different venue, a state appeals panel has
Joseph Baar Topinka, executor of the estate of his late
mother, has been trying to claim access to $341,618 in the account of her
campaign committee, Citizens for Judy Baar Topinka. His Cook County Circuit
Court complaint named the committee as a defendant, as well as Chairwoman Nancy
Kimme and Treasurer Bradley A. Burnett.
When the defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, Judge
Anna H. Demacopolous granted their request, finding the State Board of
Elections has exclusive jurisdiction over the claims. Topinka appealed to the
First District Appellate Court, which affirmed Demacopolous’ ruling in an
opinion issued March 29.
Justice Cynthia Y. Cobbs wrote the opinion, with justices
James G. Fitzgerald Smith and Terrence J. Lavin concurring.
According to background in the appellate decision, the
Committee’s fund had more than $993,000 when Judy Baar Topinka died in December
2014, as well as a written plan that, upon dissolution, any remaining funds
would be donated to the Riverside Township Regular Republican Organization.
Joseph Baar Topinka filed his complaint Dec. 29, 2015, alleging he was entitled
to his portion because, although the State Gift Ban Act prohibits political
committee expenditures for personal use of a public official, that clause
includes an exception for money available as of June 30, 1998. Cobbs noted Topinka
did not allege he asked for or was refused the money.
Topinka also alleged Kimme misappropriated $88,807 of the Committee’s
funds by paying herself $25,000 on Jan. 10, 2015 — after the Committee had
no work to do — and endorsing an Aug. 7, 2015, check for $63,807 made out to
In his appeal, Topinka argued Demacopolous should not have
dismissed the complaint because her court, and not the Board, had the authority
to question the propriety of Committee dispersals. He also noted he did not
file a Board complaint and argued the Board’s authority to conduct hearings is
limited beyond the scope of his claim.
“Any argument that plaintiff is entitled to these funds
invokes the Election Code,” Cobbs wrote, including “the provision on pre-June
30, 1998, funds. Moreover, to the extent that plaintiff contends that the Committee
must pay him $341,618 … the Election Code makes clear that the Board has the
authority to investigate violations of this specific provision and issue
rulings and opinions.”
Cobbs used similar language in addressing Topinka’s claims
about Kimme’s use of campaign funds, writing: “The Election Code’s plain
language expressly gives the Board the power to determine whether a particular
expenditure was improper. Thus, it is unquestionable that the Board was
authorized to decide whether Kimme misappropriated funds.”
Topinka also attempted to argue his request for declaratory
judgment is sufficient to remove his claims from the Elections Board because
that board cannot grant summary judgment. But Cobbs wrote he was barred from
that strategy because the state legislature has empowered the state agency to handle
such claims, and he failed to exhaust administrative remedies before taking the
matter to court.
The justices did not consider Topinka’s standing or whether
he is entitled to the money, saying, again, that such determinations must first
go through the Elections Board.