Settlement in defamation suit filed by McHenry County clerk, recorder

Former McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks acknowledged his involvement in publishing a set of 2018 campaign flyers that accused McHenry County Clerk and Recorder Joe Tirio of keeping a "slush fund" and using public dollars to take a personal vacation.

The two-year legal battle ended Tuesday with a settlement between Tirio and the dark money source that funded the flyers. As a result, Kane County Judge Kevin Busch vacated a May 2020 finding of indirect civil contempt and sanctions against Franks.

The former chairman, a Democrat, also signed a document recognizing his association with the "Illinois Integrity Fund," the anonymous group that took credit for funding the campaign ads. The document did not say how Franks was involved in publishing the flyers.

"I publicly acknowledge my role and involvement in the publication of the Flyers in connection with the 2018 Republican primary election through my association with the Illinois Integrity Fund," the document signed by Franks read. "I acknowledge that any implication or assertion in the Flyers that Mr. Tirio had a 'secret taxpayer funded slush fund, committed theft, used public funds to pay for personal 'vacation', hired 'cronies' or was 'crooked' is false. I regret any reputational or professional harm the Flyers may have caused Mr. Tirio."

In May, Kane County Judge Kevin Busch found Franks in indirect civil contempt for failure to disclose who funded the ads. The judge subsequently ordered Franks to deposit $2,100 with McHenry County Circuit Clerk's Office awaiting the outcome of the case. That money might have been used to pay Tirio's attorney's fees, but it now will be refunded to Franks, court records show. Franks also will be reimbursed for a $50 daily sanction he was ordered to pay last summer until he disclosed information about the Illinois Integrity Fund.

Attorneys declined to comment on the details of the settlement, citing a confidentiality provision.

"The matter has been resolved and the parties have released their respective claims against each other," Franks said Monday.

Because the lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice, Tirio cannot refile it at a later time.

The Republican politicians' crusade to unmask the Illinois Integrity Fund began in April 2018, shortly after the flyers circulated throughout McHenry County. The ads accused Tirio of keeping a secret "slush fund," referring to the recorder's office's automation fund, and claimed he used taxpayers' money to take a vacation to New Mexico, a potential nod to a seminar Tirio attended from Feb. 20 to 24, 2017.

Still, the county clerk and recorder won the election, and in January 2019, filed a defamation lawsuit seeking punitive and money damages.

Reached by email Monday, Tirio declined to comment on the settlement.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit were Michael Noonan, Franks' former campaign director, and Sean Tenner, a former aide of Barack Obama who owns KNI Communications. Tirio also named Franks and Chicago-based mail house Breaker Press as respondents in discovery, a legal process used to uncover information.

The suit inspired more than two years of legal arguments surrounding free, anonymous and political speech, said Chicago attorney Natalie Harris. Harris represented the Illinois Integrity Fund and Franks in court while the case was ongoing.

"Illinois has robust First Amendment protections that we've asserted all along the way," Harris said.

Reached by phone Monday, Tirio's attorney Philip Prossnitz declined to comment.

Joe Tirio
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