A pair of former McHenry County Board candidates must pay more than $62,000 in attorneys fees to a faceless dark money source against whom the duo filed a frivolous defamation lawsuit earlier this year.
A Kane County judge on Tuesday ordered Ersel Schuster and Orville Brettman to pay $62,650 to Chicago attorney Natalie Harris, who represented the anonymous group known only as the Illinois Integrity Fund.
Brettman and Schuster also must pay $17,548 to attorney Steven Laduzinsky for his time and effort defending Sean Tenner, a former aide of Barack Obama and owner of KNI Communications. Tenner and his business were named as defendants in the lawsuit, after president of the Chicago-based union mail-order house that printed the flyers suggested at a December 2018 hearing that Tenner was involved with the Illinois Integrity Fund.
Schuster and Brettman filed their joint lawsuit in February, alleging a series of campaign flyers wrongfully accused them of having histories of “criminality and hate.” The flyers referenced news articles reporting Brettman’s alleged ties to a paramilitary group called the “Legion of Justice,” and a police investigation tied to an online death threat that was traced back to Schuster’s home.
When a transcript of Brettman’s 1975 grand jury testimony about his involvement with the Legion of Justice surfaced as an exhibit in a filing earlier this year, Brettman, a former Carpentersville village president, claimed an unknown group of socialists fabricated the document.
Busch dismissed Brettman and Schuster’s lawsuit in August, ruling that the civil complaint was without merit and filed in violation of Illinois’ Anti-SLAPP laws.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Harris asked for additional sanctions against Brettman and Schuster’s attorney, James Bishop. Those sanctions could come in the form of a reprimand for filing documents under oath while knowing their contents were false, or a monetary donation to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Harris said.
A decision about the potential sanctions could be made on Dec. 5, when the attorneys are scheduled to meet again in Kane County court. Although Busch allowed Bishop additional time to file a response to Harris’ request for sanctions, the judge made it clear he believed at least Brettman’s portion of the lawsuit was frivolous.
“I find it hard to believe that you can stand here today and argue with a straight face that the arguments you made on behalf of Mr. Brettman are even close to being true,” Busch said.
Shortly after Brettman and Schuster’s lawsuit was dismissed, former McHenry County Board member Michael Rein and board member Chuck Wheeler voluntarily dismissed similar lawsuits that they previously filed individually against the integrity fund.
Although they have the choice to refile their lawsuits within one year, Busch warned them they would be fined $2,500 each if they did so, since the flyers in question were not defamatory toward Rein or Wheeler, the judge said.