A little more than a year ago, hundreds of people — high-powered politicians, dignitaries, ordinary citizens, Republicans and Democrats — gathered in a union hall in Countryside to celebrate the life of Judy Baar Topinka.
A lot was said that day about Judy’s ability to find common ground in a divided political landscape, to advocate for the vulnerable and unite and connect with people.
Two of the people who gave eulogies that day — in fact, the last two — were Judy’s longtime chief of staff, Nancy Kimme, and Judy’s son, Joe. They were heartfelt, authentic tributes to a woman they both loved and admired.
Now they are on opposite ends of a lawsuit that, frankly, we can’t believe is happening.
We can’t believe this is the way Judy would have wanted things to go.
At issue is a quite tidy sum of money sitting in Judy’s campaign war chest — some $840,000.
Under Illinois law there’s just a three ways that money can be disbursed when a politician dies.
The money can go back to contributors, though we’re not sure how that’d work for a campaign fund that goes back almost 40 years and included, we’re guessing, hundreds of contributors.
The money can be transferred to another political fund, a decision likely to be as contentious as the lawsuit that’s been filed.
Or the money can go to charity.
Wait, there’s actually, four ways. If the fund existed prior to June 30, 1998 the amount of money in the fund at the time is grandfathered so it isn’t subject to new gift ban rules imposed on that date.
On that date in 1998, the fund had about $340,000. Joseph Topinka is suing to collect that amount.
He has said that he would like it to serve as the seed money for the Judy Baar Topinka Charitable Foundation, which he created over the summer and registered with the state in December 2015.
The language of the lawsuit states that money should go to him, either individually or as executor of his mother’s estate. So it’s tricky.
Surely, contributors to Judy’s campaigns over the years did not intend the money to go to her son. We also don’t believe they ever thought it’d be returned to them or ceded to another political war chest. Certainly, no one wants a good percentage of that money going to pay taxes if it’s deemed income for someone.
That leaves a donation to charity as the final option.
Maybe that charity is the one created by Judy’s son; maybe it’s not. Maybe there’s another option — letting past contributors decide which charity or charities the money ought to go to.
We have no idea how that’d work, but hammering it out in private surely beats a public lawsuit, in which both sides are already accusing the other of trying to enrich themselves by wanting to get their hands on the money.
That’s not the legacy anyone wished for.