Federal judge rejects lawsuit attempting to 'level playing field' of Illinois elections funding

By DM Herra | Oct 29, 2018

Dan Proft interviews a guest on his radio program on WIND-AM 560.  

A federal judge sided with Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the Illinois State Board of Elections in a lawsuit that sought to lift a state law that prohibits independent expenditure committees from contributing funds directly to political candidates, to "level the playing field" in an elections system the plaintiffs asserted is tilted.

Political activist Dan Proft filed the lawsuit along with his conservative political advocacy group, Liberty Principles PAC. Illinois lifts campaign spending limits when a candidate’s self-funding efforts exceed $250,000 for a statewide office or $100,000 for any other race. However, the law also prohibits groups registered as independent expenditure committees from contributing to or coordinating with a candidate, no matter how much money has been raised.

Independent expenditure committees are defined as organizations formed for the exclusive purpose of making “independent expenditures” totaling more than $5,000 in a 12-month period in support of or opposition to a candidate. The organizations can spend their money on “electioneering communications” or any other express advocacy, but unlike a political action committee, cannot directly coordinate with a candidate or campaign.

The key distinction between a political action committee and an independent expenditure committee, according to federal Judge Virginia M. Kendall, is that a PAC can coordinate directly with a candidate, but the amount of money it can raise and contribute is limited until the $250,000 or $100,000 threshold is reached. An independent expenditure committee can spend as much as it likes, but cannot coordinate directly with the candidate.

Proft argued that his lawsuit sought to “level the playing field” – if every other group is allowed to coordinate with candidates while making unlimited contributions to their campaigns once the cap is lifted, independent expenditure committees should be able to do so, as well.

The suit claimed the state election code violates the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

In her analysis of the complaint, Kendall noted that it is incumbent on Madigan’s office to prevent actions that could lead to corruption. Proft argued that allowing an independent expenditure committee to coordinate with candidates poses no more threat of corruption than allowing any other group to do the same.

Arguing that multiple races in this fall’s elections will exceed the $100,000 cap, Proft asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction prohibiting Madigan’s office from enforcing the law preventing coordinated expenditures by independent expenditure committees. Kendall refused.

For more than 40 years, Kendall wrote, the Supreme Court has distinguished between independent expenditures on behalf of candidates and direct contributions to candidates.

“That absence of prearrangement and coordination alleviates the danger of corruption,” she wrote. “When that independence is eliminated, the very concerns of corruption enter the picture. …Without any kind of organizational separation, Liberty Principles could coordinate at will with candidates and campaigns, making it no longer ‘functionally distinct’ as an independent expenditure committee. A single entity such as that, which conducts both activities, appears corrupt on its face.”

The judge pointed out that should the state allow independent expenditure committees to coordinate directly with candidates once the fundraising threshold is met, Liberty Principles could simply spend enough on its own to lift the cap. Moreover, she said, there was no proposal to prevent Liberty Principles from comingling expenditures and contributions.

“Proft wants to enjoy the benefits of an independent expenditure committee … while also enjoying the benefits of a PAC,” Kendall wrote. “It appears, then, that what Proft would really like is to have his cake and eat it too. …Choices have consequences, however, and Proft must live with the limitations of the entity he chose to establish.”

Kendall found that the limits on independent expenditure committees are constitutional in that they are a “closely drawn means of preventing corruption or its appearance.”

Proft is represented in the action by attorneys Patrick J. Hughes, Jeffrey M. Schwab and James J. McQuaid, of the Liberty Justice Center, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Illinois Attorney Generals Office Illinois State Board of Elections Liberty Justice Center Liberty Principles PAC U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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