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Elections board urged to dismiss complaint that Bailey illegally coordinated in 2022 campaign

Former GOP governor candidate Darren Bailey (right) and conservative political operative Dan Proft are pictured during an April hearing before the Illinois State Board of Elections. A hearing officer has recommended the board dismiss a complaint that the pair illegally colluded in the 2022 election
Andrew Adams
Capitol News Illinois
Former GOP governor candidate Darren Bailey (right) and conservative political operative Dan Proft are pictured during an April hearing before the Illinois State Board of Elections. A hearing officer has recommended the board dismiss a complaint that the pair illegally colluded in the 2022 election

A hearing officer is recommending the Illinois State Board of Elections dismiss a complaint that alleged conservative radio host and political operative Dan Proft illegally coordinated with former Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey during his 2022 campaign for governor.

Proft, a one-time gubernatorial candidate himself, is behind an independent expenditure committee dubbed the “People Who Play By The Rules PAC,” which received $42 million from GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein, and in turn spent $36 million during the 2022 campaign cycle.

The complaint, filed by a top Democratic party official in the waning days of the campaign, claimed Proft’s PAC coordinated campaign spending with Bailey in violation of state law.

Read more: Election officials to weigh whether Darren Bailey and GOP operative Dan Proft illegally coordinated

Under Illinois election law, “independent expenditure committees” like Proft’s PAC are barred from making expenditures “in connection, consultation, or concert with or at the request or suggestion of” public officials or candidates for office.

But in an opinion published this week ahead of the election board’s next meeting Tuesday, hearing officer James Tenuto agreed with Proft and Bailey’s contention that the complaint actually relied on federal law prohibiting independent expenditure coordination and wrote that “Illinois has no laws or rules governing independent expenditures.”

Though Tenuto recommended that the Board of Elections adopt rules or the General Assembly clarify state law about what is and isn’t allowed by independent expenditure committees, his broader take was that the evidence in the case didn’t support the claims of Proft and Bailey’s illegal coordination.

In an April hearing on the matter, attorneys for Democratic Party of Illinois Executive Director Ben Hardin, who lodged the complaint, painted a picture of illegal campaign coordination via a secret meeting, use of Bailey’s campaign footage in advertisements produced by Proft’s PAC, and Bailey’s appearances on Proft’s AM radio show.

The day after Bailey won the four-way Republican primary for governor in June of 2022, he and his campaign manager flew via helicopter to a Chicago-area country club for a meeting requested by Proft.

At that meeting, Proft told Bailey that Uihlein had agreed to provide $20 million to Bailey’s campaign – and allegedly presented Bailey with an envelope containing a check to that effect – if Bailey fired his campaign staff and Proft was given the reins.

If not, Bailey was told, Uihlein would instead direct the money to Proft’s PAC, according to testimony during the April hearing. Bailey refused to accept the deal, and Proft’s PAC went on to produce pro-Bailey ads funded by Uihlein’s millions.

Tenuto was unconvinced by Hardin’s contention that because Bailey refused the $20 million, he tacitly agreed to Uihlein’s alternative plan to give Proft the money in order to indirectly boost Bailey’s campaign.

Tenuto pointed out that Uihlein was free to change his mind about the deal, and that “rather than proving coordination,” Bailey’s refusal to fire his staff “confirmed the desire for the Candidate and Bailey for Illinois to maintain their independence from Proft and the PAC.”

“Nevertheless, Bailey’s refusal to accept the conditions was the result, but more significantly, not the cause of the $20 million contribution going to the PAC,” he wrote. “Ultimately, the recipient of the contribution was Uihlein’s decision. Bailey never had any ‘control’ over the ultimate recipient of the contribution.”

The complaint also alleged that Bailey’s appearances on Proft’s radio show were tantamount to message coordination that were later used in ads paid for by the PAC. But Tenuto also dismissed that theory, pointing out that Bailey and Proft were simply amplifying a key GOP argument of the 2022 election cycle: crime.

“There was no need for Bailey to appear on Proft’s radio show to signal to the PAC the message he wanted to get out,” Tenuto wrote. “‘Crime is out of control’ was a common theme for Republican candidates.”

And though Hardin pointed out that Proft’s pro-Bailey ads used B-roll footage created by the Bailey campaign and posted on its website and YouTube channel, Tenuto also didn’t buy that its public posting was a clear sign of coordination. He cited Proft’s testimony from the April hearing that he was “solely...responsible” for the PAC ads and “never had any conversation” with Bailey’s campaign staff about the ads.

Bailey lost the general election to Gov. JB Pritzker by 12.5 percentage points, and earlier this year lost his primary challenge against Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Bost.

The Board of Elections is scheduled to make a final decision in the case at its June 18 meeting.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Hannah covers state government and politics for NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Radio. She previously covered the statehouse for The Daily Line and Law360, and also worked a temporary stint at the political blog Capitol Fax in 2018.