The former chairman of the Illinois Gaming Board has sued the state Executive Ethics Commission for finding that he engaged in unlawful political activity while a board member.
Don Tracy, a Springfield attorney and contributor to Republican causes, says the executive inspector general's office conducted a shoddy investigation and that his wife, not he, was behind contributions to candidates made while he was on the gaming board. He is asking a judge to order the commission to vacate its findings and also declare invalid a ban on gaming board members making political contributions.
Tracy says state law doesn't bar contributions by members of state boards and that any ban on contributions violates the First Amendment. It is akin to a stance by Citizens United, a group that won a U.S. Supreme Court decision nullifying prohibitions on campaign spending by corporations on grounds that money spent on political causes amounts to free speech.
Steven Beckett, an Urbana lawyer who is Tracy's co-counsel, says that if the state wants to bar members of the gaming board from making contributions, the legislature should pass a law that explicitly says so. "I don't think it would pass constitutional muster," Beckett says.
Tracy sued in Sangamon County Circuit Court last month after the ethics commission released the inspector general's report and adopted its findings. The investigation began when Brad Schaive, business manager for Laborers Local 477, complained that Tracy had broken the law by contributing $1,000 to Seth McMillan, a candidate for state senate, according to a September story in the State Journal-Register. Tracy and the union had clashed over whether a now-defunct proposal to build a park on the Y block should have included an agreement aimed at requiring the use of local union labor.
Tracy's wife, Wanda, signed the check to McMillan's campaign, but the inspector general concluded that she did so at her husband's behest and that it wasn't the only occasion. The inspector general deemed suspicious 30 instances of political donations and campaign contributions made while Tracy was on the gaming board. In 25 cases, contributions were made from joint checking accounts over which both Don and his wife had control; in four cases, checks weren't located. A 2018 donation to former Gov. Bruce Rauner was made online and in Wanda Tracy's name.
In two cases, Tracy acknowledged giving money to political committees. He says that after being sworn in as the gaming board chairman he gave $200 to former Springfield Ald. Herman Senor's campaign and that he was not yet aware that board members weren't supposed to contribute to candidates or political organizations. He also said he'd loaned $200 to Central Illinois for Responsible Government, a committee he chaired that supported Rauner's 2014 campaign, to pay an election board fine levied in 2015 for late filing of a disclosure report. He also didn't dispute giving the committee $210 in 2016 to pay bank service charges and other expenses. The committee, Tracy says, went dormant after the 2014 election and spent no money on behalf of any candidates or political causes. Tracy's contention that the committee was inactive while he chaired the gaming board was "clearly not the case," the inspector general concluded. The committee dissolved last year, still owing Tracy more than $67,000 in unpaid loans made in 2014, according to election board records.
Since 1998, Tracy has made more than 200 contributions totaling more than $580,000, according to election board records. Until her husband joined the gaming board, Wanda Tracy had made one contribution, a $5,300 donation to Jil Tracy, a relative who ran for lieutenant governor in 2014. While Tracy was on the gaming board, the inspector general found more than $20,000 in contributions from a joint checking account controlled by him and his wife In six instances, election board records showed Don Tracy as the donor. Tracy was gaming board chairman for more than four years before he resigned in June.
Tracy says a drop in donations from accounts with the Tracy name on them shows that his wife wasn't his puppet. He told the inspector general that he informed his wife that he couldn't make contributions while on the gaming board and that decisions on contributions would be hers alone. In a letter to the ethics commission, Tracy notes that his wife signed checks, and he criticizes the inspector general for not interviewing his wife.
"Wanda thinks for herself and exercises her political speech rights as she sees fit," Tracy wrote.
While acknowledging that spouses of gaming board members are allowed to make contributions, the inspector general pointed out the dearth of donations by Wanda Tracy prior to her husband joining the gaming board. "(I)t is not credible that she suddenly decided to make 26 political contributions, including six to the same committees Don Tracy previously supported, without any direction from her husband," the inspector general concluded.