When Judy Baar Topinka, the late Riverside resident and state comptroller, died suddenly and unexpectedly in December 2014, she left behind a political campaign fund, which as of September 2015 totaled $841,204.
Her son, Joseph, says he wants that money to go toward the Judy Baar Topinka Charitable Foundation, which was registered with the Illinois Attorney General on Dec. 1, 2015. However, he’s been unable to work out an arrangement with the officers of the campaign fund for that money to be converted to that purpose.
So on Dec. 29, 2015, Topinka filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court to wrest control of the funds from the officers of the campaign fund, who include its president, Nancy Kimme — Judy Baar Topinka’s longtime chief of staff — and its treasurer, Bradley Burnett.
“I have been clear about my intention as her son and executor of her estate to promote the educational endeavors of Illinois youth and to use the money in this fund to build a living memorial to my mother and her career by helping people become active in public affairs,” said Joseph Baar Topinka in a press release issued Monday by Chris Robling, a Riverside resident and owner of Clearspan Strategic, a company specializing in corporate crisis communications.
“It is time to settle these matters so that work can proceed in building a better future through our youth,” Topinka said in the press release.
The purpose of the Topinka Charitable Foundation is to “assist young women and men with a demonstrated interest in public affairs with leadership, training and education,” according to the press release.
The lawsuit alleges that after Judy Baar Topinka’s death on Dec. 10, 2014, Kimme converted $88,807 in campaign funds for her personal use, including a $25,000 payment for professional services, dated Jan. 10, 2015, and a $63,807 check written to “cash” in August, which is not reflected as an expense in the campaign fund’s D-2 quarterly report, filed with the state’s board of elections.
Kimme told the State Journal-Register in June 2015 that the $25,000 payment was for work she did on Judy Baar Topinka’s re-election campaign, that the late comptroller typically paid campaign workers stipends following the election and that the two had discussed such stipends prior to Topinka’s death.
Four days after Judy Baar Topinka’s death, a new Statement of Organization document was filed on Dec. 14, 2015, naming Kimme chairman of Citizens for Judy Baar Topinka. Burnett had been treasurer of the campaign fund since January 2011.
According to the lawsuit, Kimme’s personal use of those funds violated the State Gift Ban Act. Joseph Baar Topinka wants the $88,807 returned.
While Burnett is not alleged to have diverted any of the campaign funds for personal use, he approved the transactions in his position as treasurer of the campaign fund, according to the lawsuit.
“The defendants have taken advantage of their positions for their own financial gain,” the lawsuit states.
Reached on Monday, Kimme called the allegations against her “ridiculous,” and directed further questions to the well-known Chicago public relations firm Serafin and Associates, which specializes in public affairs communications.
Kimme’s spokesman, Scott Burnham of Serafin, called the allegations “shameful, reckless and completely without merit.”
Burnham said the $63,807 check written to cash was part of an internal campaign fund transaction resulting from the closing out of a bank account. The money was remitted to the campaign fund after the account was closed.
“The records clearly show the money remained in the campaign fund, but was transferred to a different bank after another account was closed,” Burnham said. “The money never left the Citizens for Judy Baar Topinka account.”
In the lawsuit, Joseph Baar Topinka also asks the court to transfer $341,618 from the campaign fund to him, either individually or as the executor of his mother’s estate.
That amount is the balance that was in the fund as of June 30, 1998, when state law changed how campaign funds could be used. Prior to that date, the funds could be converted for personal use.
Afterwards, the use of the funds was narrowed to three tracks. The money could be returned to donors in amounts no larger than originally given, it could be transferred to another campaign fund or it could be donated to charity.
However, the 1998 law allowed campaign funds that existed prior to June 30, 1998 to grandfather any balance that existed at that date, so those funds wouldn’t be subject to the new rules.
“The relevant legal authority specifically exempts pre-1998 campaign funds from the application of the State Gift Ban Act, permitting those funds to be claimed by either the candidate or the candidate’s family member, which would include Joseph, either individually or as executor of the estate,” the lawsuit states.
Burnham said that Topinka never indicated any wish to convert the cash in the campaign fund to personal use or for it to be directed to any member of her family.
“He’s looking to enrich himself at the expense of the people who contributed to his mother’s political campaign,” Burnham said.
Until the court decides what will happen to the money in the campaign fund, Joseph Baar Topinka has asked the court to hold the cash in a trust and prohibit it from being spent without a court order.
In the first quarter of 2015, the campaign fund paid out about $160,000 in expenses, including the $25,000 professional services payment to Kimme.
Since the end of March 2015, only nominal expenses have been paid from the campaign fund, according to campaign disclosure information found on the Illinois Board of Elections website.
The attorney representing Topinka is Riverside resident and former Cook County commissioner Tony Peraica, who reportedly had been talking with Kimme’s attorney, Michael Kasper, until late summer 2015, when communication ceased.
Peraica, in the press release stated that Topinka was forced to file the lawsuit to end the delays in getting the money transferred to the Topinka Foundation.
“Sadly, the folks at her campaign have been playing possum, hoping her family, friends and supporters would forget the nearly one million campaign dollars that were accidentally left in their hands,” Peraica said. “As one who worked with and learned from Judy, I am appalled that they have behaved this way.”