Illinois congressional candidate C.J. Baricevic is getting the majority of his campaign funding, almost a quarter-million dollars’ worth, from attorneys — most of whom ply their trade in the Belleville-based court system headed by Baricevic’s powerful father, 20th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge John Baricevic.
In the latest intersection of law, politics and family within the Metro East’s famously insular legal community, a Post-Dispatch analysis found that C.J. Baricevic has received more than $246,000 — well over half his total of individual itemized contributions — from lawyers and others associated with more than 70 law firms. Virtually all of them have filed or defended cases in the circuit where Baricevic’s father is the chief judge.
One of those firms alone has donated more than $37,000 to the Democratic candidate through its lawyers and employees in recent months, the newspaper found, with even its secretaries giving the top allowable contribution of $2,700 each.
C.J. Baricevic asserted that his support from attorneys doesn’t stem from his father’s status as chief judge, but from his own status as a fellow lawyer. He is a partner in the Belleville firm Chatham & Baricevic.
“My peers are donating to me, which is flattering,” said Baricevic. “A lot of these people encouraged me. ... Without their support, I probably wouldn’t have run in the first place.”
His father, Judge Baricevic, vehemently disputed any connection between his position as chief judge and his son’s strong support from attorneys. He said the chief judge’s official authority to assign cases to other judges was in practice carried out by people under him.
“Call any lawyer, call any judge. I do not interfere with the normal process” of assigning cases to other judges, he said last week. “You won’t find one lawyer who will make that accusation, because it’s unfounded.”
No one has alleged that Judge Baricevic has improperly meddled in case assignments. But critics say the lawyer-donors’ unusual generosity toward his son raises the question of whether those attorneys feel pressure to give.
“Common sense would tell you if you give money to the chief judge’s son, he’s going to like you, and if you don’t, he won’t,” said Belleville City Clerk Dallas Cook, a Republican who is running for 20th Judicial Circuit clerk and is suing to get Judge Baricevic removed from a judicial ballot this year in an unrelated election dispute.
“It’s always been tyrannical rule here” by Democrats, said Cook. “This is just up another notch.”
C.J. Baricevic, 31, is attempting to unseat U.S. Rep Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, the freshman GOP incumbent. The 12th Congressional District takes in St. Clair County, parts of Madison County and much of deep southwestern Illinois.
Baricevic maintains that “the real story” in the campaign is that he is raising most of his money from individual donations, while Bost relies heavily on Republican Party money and PACs.
Federal election records show Bost has raised more than $700,000 from those sources, comprising almost half his total campaign income. Baricevic has raised only about $70,000 in PAC and party money, less than 15 percent of his total.
“The big money is all going to Mike Bost, all the big PAC contributions,” said Baricevic. He said that pattern proved Bost was “a D.C. insider.”
John Baricevic, 68, has been on the bench for more than a decade in the 20th Judicial Circuit, which encompasses St. Clair, Monroe, Perry, Randolph and Washington counties.
For decades, the elder Baricevic has been a major figure in St. Clair County’s powerful Democratic political culture. Prior to joining the bench, he was county board chairman and, before that, state’s attorney. In 2012, Judge Baricevic publicly considered running for the congressional seat his son now seeks.
St. Clair County, along with neighboring Madison County, has long been a national magnet for plaintiffs in asbestos-related litigation. Baricevic himself hears felony criminal cases, but as chief judge, he has administrative authority over the flow of all the cases in the circuit.
UNUSUAL LEVEL OF SUPPORT
Even in a Metro East legal community with a long history of supporting Democrats, the level of support for C.J. Baricevic’s campaign is unusual.
The last Democrat to hold the seat, former Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, won election in 2012 with about the same amount in individual itemized funding as Baricevic currently has. But only about $182,000 worth of Enyart’s individual donations came from lawyers, comprising less than 40 percent of his total, the newspaper’s analysis found. That’s against Baricevic’s $246,682 in attorney-related money, or 55 percent of his total.
The highest-donating law firm among Baricevic’s contributors, Keefe, Keefe & Unsell of Belleville, gave at least $37,600, partly though top-level donations through four attorneys and one spouse.
In addition, three of the firm’s secretaries, two legal assistants and a receptionist each donated the top allowable contribution of $2,700 — an unusual level of giving for people who aren’t in higher-paying occupations. Those six donations all were made on the same day in March, according to C.J. Baricevic’s campaign records.
None of that in itself violates federal election law, as long as the money actually originates with the employees and wasn’t given to them by an employer for the purpose of making the donation, according to a Federal Election Commission spokesman.
Phone and email messages seeking comment from the donors at the Keefe firm weren’t returned last week.
A partner at another of the top-donating firms, Cook, Ysursa, Bartholomew, Brauer & Shevlin of Belleville, dismissed the suggestion that lawyers in Judge Baricevic’s circuit feel any pressure, implied or otherwise, to make political donations to his son.
“That’s absolutely untrue,” said the partner, Bernard Ysursa. “We’ve given to all Democratic candidates and we support them and we’ll continue to do so.”
Ysursa and his partners have donated a total of $10,850 to C.J. Baricevic, records show. That’s significantly more than they gave to former Rep. Enyart in 2014, though it’s slightly less than they gave to Enyart in 2012.
In Illinois judicial circuits, the chief judge “has general administrative authority in his or her circuit,” including the authority to assign cases to other judges, according to an official description provided by the state’s court system.
Judge Baricevic said that in practice, those assignments are carried out by an administrator who “works for me,” but that “I don’t tell her who to assign cases to.”
Asked why he believes his son has such unusually high support from attorneys in the circuit, Baricevic argued that “he has a broad base of support.”
“Your theory of influence is absolutely inappropriate and a waste of your readers’ time,” he said. “It’s not accurate.”
A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is trying to hold the seat against C.J. Baricevic’s challenge, said the newspaper’s findings raised questions of potential “conflicts of interest between his father’s power in the courtroom and the lawyers funding his campaign.”
“It is clear that C.J. Baricevic has far more support in the trial lawyer community than he does among the majority of 12th District voters,” NRCC Spokesman Zach Hunter said in a written statement.
A CONTROVERSIAL CIRCUIT
The 20th Judicial Circuit is no stranger to controversy.
In 2013, St. Clair County Associate Judge Joseph Christ died of a cocaine overdose at a hunting lodge owned by the family of fellow St. Clair County Judge Mike Cook. Cook ultimately was sentenced to two years in federal prison on heroin and weapons charges.
This year, Baricevic and two other 20th Circuit judges who were facing a scheduled retention vote opted instead to announce their resignations, then run for those vacant seats as new candidates. Since retention of a sitting judge requires an extraordinary majority — 60 percent of the vote — while a regular judicial election requires only a plurality, the move will make it easier for the three judges to remain on the bench.
Both the judicial and congressional elections are scheduled Nov. 8.
Dallas Cook, the Belleville city clerk, has sued to prevent the judges from completing what he alleges is a scheme to sidestep the state constitution. The suit is pending. (Cook isn’t related to Judge Mike Cook.)
The area that is now the Illinois 12th Congressional District was Democratic for generations, then flipped to the Republicans with Bost’s election in 2014. Flipping it back this year was considered a key to national Democrats’ long-shot hopes of winning back the U.S. House. “It’s hard to see how Democrats get anywhere near a House majority without winning this seat,” Nathan Gonzales, co-publisher of the Rothenberg-Gonzales Political Report, told the Post-Dispatch last year.
C.J. Baricevic wasn’t the national Democrats’ choice for the race, with detractors citing his youth, political inexperience and lack of adequate fundraising. But the party failed to recruit anyone else, and Baricevic will be on the November ballot.
Walker Moskop and Chuck Raasch of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.