Michael Zalewski

The campaign committee for Illinois state Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) has spent $130,347.50 in legal fees to the large law firm Jones Day over the past three years, and Zalewski’s opponent in the June 28 primary says Zalewski has an obligation to explain why he needed to spend so much money on attorneys.

“He owes the voters an explanation,” said Illinois House 21st District challenger Abdelnasser Rashid, who raised the issue during a virtual candidate forum on May 18 hosted by the League of Women Voters of the LaGrange Area.

Zalewski has responded mostly in generalities. 

“Lawmakers can use attorneys for a wide variety of reasons,” Zalewski told the Landmark. “They include compliance, they include document review, they include any number of issues that can deal with the job and issues surrounding the job. 

“For any number of reasons it’s imprudent for me to comment beyond that, except to suggest that I’ve done nothing wrong and I’ve been implicated in no wrongdoing, so it’s simply a distraction from Rashid’s failed record to be a politician.”

The payments by the Zalewski for State Representative campaign committee to Jones Day began in June of 2019. A lot was happening around then.

A statement provided to the Capitol Fax newsletter by a Zalewski surrogate, who was not named, pointed out that Zalewski helped in the federal investigation of former state Rep Luis Arroyo, who ultimately pleaded guilty to bribery for his role in pushing sweepstakes gambling legislation. 

According to a Chicago Tribune report, Zalewski testified before a grand jury about the way Arroyo acted in the General Assembly. The statement said Zalewski testifying before a grand jury required him to hire an attorney, and that political and legislators often have attorney’s on a retainer. Zalewski was a witness, and not a target, in the investigation of Arroyo. 

Abdelnasser Rashid

Zalewski declined to discuss his grand jury testimony, other than to confirm that it happened.

“I cannot because of issues surrounding grand jury proceedings,” Zalewski said.

The Rashid campaign suggested that Zalewski’s involvement in the Arroyo investigation doesn’t explain why Zalewski’s campaign committee spent so much money on lawyers over the last three years.

“Rep. Zalewski is misleading voters,” Rashid said in a statement. “He still failed to justify his $130,000 in legal fees, instead deploying a surrogate to dodge the issue.”

Rashid pointed out that the U.S. Justice Department announced that Arroyo’s alleged crimes on Aug. 2, 2019 and Aug. 22, 2019.

Zalewski’s first payment to Jones Day was on June 25, 2019, before the Arroyo crime was committed. 

“This was soon after Rep. Zalewski’s father’s home was raided by the FBI,” Rashid said.

In May 2019 federal agents raided the home of Zalewski’s father, Michael R. Zalewski, who has been caught up in the federal indictment of former Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan.    

According to the federal corruption indictment against Madigan, ComEd hired the senior Zalewski as a consultant for $5,000 a month in exchange for little or no work in an effort to curry favor with Madigan or at Madigan’s direction. The elder Zalewski has not been charged with any crime.

Rep. Zalewski told the Landmark he has not been paying any legal fees for his father, who has been paying another law firm. 

A month or so before his campaign’s committee’s first payment to Jones Day in 2019 Zalewski, who had been a prime proponent of expanding sports betting in Illinois, stepped back from that issue after Rivers Casino complained that the law firm that Zalewski works for, Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, had numerous lobbying clients with interests in gambling, including sports betting, suggesting that Zalewski had a conflict of interest.

Rashid said the six figure expenditure on lawyers raises questions that should be answered.

“I am not alleging that Rep. Zalewski has committed a crime, but I believe that we should hold elected officials to a higher standard than whether or not they have been charged with a crime,” Rashid said in a statement. “Rep. Zalewski’s deep ties to former Speaker Madigan, who is being charged with corruption and bribery, should rightfully give voters pause.”

Zalewski accused Rashid of using the issue as a distraction, decrying the negative nature of Rashid’s campaign.

“I am fully confident that I have acted beyond reproach,” Zalewski said. “I stand by my record.”

For his part, Zalewski questioned why Rashid’s campaign committee didn’t disclose any expenditures in its first quarter report to the Illinois Board of Elections.

“How did a campaign get started up with no expenses being paid, not even for the printer, not even for consultants, not even for attorneys, it’s mind boggling,” Zalewski said.

Rashid only established his campaign committee on March 15, the day after he filed his petitions to run against Zalewski, so the first quarter report of his campaign committee, Rashid for Illinois, only covers two weeks since the first quarter ends March 31. 

His first quarter report filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections indicates that Rashid made an in-kind contribution of $175 on March 15 to pay for printing petition sheets. The report states that Rashid’s campaign chairman, Clem Balanoff, also paid $1,090.07 on March 31 for a voter database which was reported as an in-kind contribution.

An examination of disclosure reports filed by Zalewski’s campaign committee, Zalewski for State Rep, reveals that Zalewski uses campaign funds to make $915.72 monthly lease payments for a Chevrolet Traverse SUV. That is legal because he uses the Traverse for his government and political work, Zalewski said.

Generally, politicians in Illinois can spend campaign contributions on anything connected to their jobs as legislators or campaigns. It is illegal for politicians to spend campaign funds for things that are exclusively for personal use. 

Zalewski’s campaign committee spent $6,900.75 last October on White Sox tickets. Zalewski, who is a passionate White Sox fan, said that those tickets were used for a fundraiser.

Over the course of more than a decade, Zalewski’s campaign committee has paid the Lost Dunes Golf Club in Bridgeman, Michigan, $181,414.20. Zalewski hosts an annual golf outing there as a fundraiser.

“It’s an expensive fundraiser, but it’s also one that raises money so, yeah, it’s perfectly legal under the law,” Zalewski said.

Jones Day was the second largest recipient of funds from the Zalewski for State Rep campaign committee, trailing only the Lost Dunes Golf Club.