KOSCHMAN JUDGE GAVE MONEY TO ALVAREZ CAMPAIGN FUND
Published March 12, 2011
By TIM NOVAK AND CHRIS FUSCO
The judge who’s to decide whether a special prosecutor investigates the Cook County state’s attorney’s office’s handling of a homicide case involving a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley has contributed $1,450 to the re-election campaign of State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, records show.
Illinois Supreme Court rules allow such contributions. Still, they are rare. Circuit Judge Michael P. Toomin is among eight Cook County judges who have given Alvarez at least $150 – the minimum amount that’s required to be reported in campaign-finance filings. That’s 2 percent of the 410 sitting judges.
They are asking the judge to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the circumstances of the 21-year-old Mount Prospect man’s death days after being punched in the face by Daley nephew Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko in a drunken confrontation in the Rush Street area in the early morning hours of April 25, 2004. They also want an outside prosecutor to investigate the way the case was handled by the state’s attorney’s office and the Chicago Police Department.
Alvarez is fighting the request for a special prosecutor.
Toomin – who was assigned the case in December – has contributed to Alvarez four times, most recently in June. He says he has attended campaign fund-raisers for Alvarez and also gave money to her predecessors but that his political contributions won’t affect his decisions in the Koschman case. “We live in a political environment,” the judge says when asked about the contributions he made to Alvarez. “Will this affect things? Of course not . . . . It is what it is.”
Toomin, 73, is the presiding judge of Cook County’s juvenile courts. Chief Cook County Criminal Courts Judge Paul Biebel Jr. gave Toomin the Koschman case after withdrawing because of a health issue. Biebel chose Toomin after consulting with Timothy C. Evans, the county’s chief judge. Biebel says he didn’t know about Toomin’s contributions to Alvarez but that, even if he had known, it wouldn’t have changed his mind about assigning Toomin the case.
“Would that make a difference in his judgment? No,” says Biebel. “I know Mike Toomin to be one of the best judges I’ve ever served with.”
Toomin – who formerly served as chief judge of the county’s criminal courts – has been a judge since 1980. Running as a Republican, he was elected to be a circuit court judge in 1984.
As a criminal courts judge in the 1990s, Toomin presided over high-profile cases including the retrial of Chicago mob hit man Harry Aleman. He sentenced Aleman to 100 to 300 years in prison.
Prosecutors frequently appear before Toomin and the 13 judges he supervises in juvenile court on a wide range of matters. In the Koschman case, though, the prosecutor’s office is, in effect, defending itself, arguing that there is no reason to question its impartiality nor to question whether the agency has a conflict of interest in reviewing a case in which the conduct of prosecutors has been questioned.
Though Illinois allows judges to donate to political campaigns, Jeffrey M. Shaman, a professor of legal ethics at DePaul University, says judges should take care in deciding whose campaigns to contribute to.
“It looks particularly bad when a judge contributes to a campaign of someone who regularly appears before him,” says Shaman.
Locke Bowman – an attorney from Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center who is representing Koschman’s mother, Nanci Koschman, and two other family members – says he was unaware of Toomin’s contributions to Alvarez until asked about them by a Chicago Sun-Times reporter. He declined to comment further.
Alvarez spokeswoman Sally Daly says: “The state’s attorney has no idea how Judge Toomin was invited to any fund-raiser – we would assume through the mailing or email process employed by the state’s attorney’s campaign.
“If a judge receives an invitation to a fund-raiser for the state’s attorney, it is because they have voluntarily provided her campaign with their contact information, and they wish to be invited to events, or they have attended an event that was advertised on the campaign website that was open to the public.
“There is absolutely no effort on the part of the state’s attorney’s campaign to solicit members of the judiciary.
“To imply that a judge’s contribution would influence the judicial conduct or discretion of any judge is absurd.”
Bowman and co-counsel G. Flint Taylor have asked that any outside investigation of the Koschman case also determine whether the state’s attorney’s office and the police didn’t charge Vanecko because his uncle was the mayor. Bowman and Taylor argue that an outsider is needed in part because Alvarez has made clear that she thinks the case was handled properly and that no criminal charges are warranted.
The police took a new look at the case early last year, prompted by a Sun-Times investigation, and for the first time identified Vanecko as having thrown the deadly punch. But they decided not to ask prosecutors to file criminal charges, saying they believed Vanecko acted in self-defense, though Vanecko threw the only punch and then ran away.
On Feb. 29, Toomin ordered Alvarez to give Koschman’s lawyers transcripts of interviews with six witnesses done by city of Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s office. Ferguson began investigating the police department’s handling of the Koschman case last year.
Alvarez had fought having to turn over the transcripts, asserting that doing so “would disrupt the ongoing criminal investigation” by her office and Ferguson’s staff “and further undermine an already-dim prospect of any future criminal prosecution.”