Appellate court upholds dismissal of Brettman, Schuster defamation lawsuit
An Illinois appeals court on Wednesday upheld the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit sparked by allegations that two former McHenry County Board candidates had histories of "criminality and hate."
The Illinois Second District Appellate Court's order upheld Kane County Judge Kevin Busch's decision to dismiss the two-count lawsuit in August. In making his determination, Busch found a complaint filed by Orville Brettman and Ersel Schuster against a dark money source that funded contentious 2018 campaign flyers was retaliatory and violated Illinois' Anti-SLAPP laws. The appellate court's ruling further confirmed the lawsuit was an attempt to silence protected political speech.
" ... The plaintiffs (Brettman and Schuster) have not presented any cogent argument on appeal that its complaint was filed for any reason other than retaliation against the defendants," Appellate Justice Mary Schostok wrote in Wednesday's ruling.
Anti-SLAPP laws, established in the Citizen Participation Act, are in place to protect citizens from retaliatory lawsuits that try to chill free speech by using intimidation and expensive court-related costs.
McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks, who introduced the Citizens Participation Act, was named as a defendant in the lawsuit along with Michael Noonan, Franks' former campaign director; The Roosevelt Group; Sean Tenner, a former aide of Barack Obama, and owner of KNI Communications; and the Illinois Integrity Fund.
The lawsuit centered on a series of campaign flyers that were funded by the anonymous "Illinois Integrity Fund" and circulated through the county before the March 2018 primary election. At the time, Brettman and Schuster were running for positions on the McHenry County Board.
The flyers alleged Brettman, a Grafton Township committeeman, was racist and associated with a "right-wing terrorist group" tied to the bombing of an Elgin church.
According to a transcript from Brettman's 1975 testimony before a Cook County grand jury, the former Carpentersville village president and police officer was involved in a right-wing extremist group that called itself the "Legion of Justice." Brettman has publicly denied any involvement with the group and previously told the Northwest Herald the grand jury transcript was fabricated by socialists.
"Here, the transcripts of the 1975 grand jury proceedings reveal that the defendants' assertions about Brettman are true," Schostok wrote.
The campaign flyers also referenced an alleged online death threat against Franks, which police traced to Schuster's home. Schuster denied she or her husband made the threat, citing a Lakewood police investigation and interview regarding the comment.
"(Schuster's) claim that she and her husband did not make a threat is not equivalent to denying that a threat was traced to her home," Schostok wrote.
Additional suits filed by McHenry County Clerk and Recorder Joe Tirio, former McHenry County Board member Michael Rein and current County Board member Chuck Wheeler also alleged defamation by the Illinois Integrity Fund. Lawsuits filed by Rein and Wheeler have since been dismissed.