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 ruled. 

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. 

Judy Baar Topinka
Judy Baar Topinka

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 cash. 

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.

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