- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

CHICAGO (AP) - A group waging an aggressive legal battle to keep a redistricting question off November’s Illinois ballot hasn’t reported a single donation or expense since it became a political committee last summer, adding to the mystery of who is funding the effort and paying its legal bills.

The People’s Map, comprised of business and community leaders who say they represent the interests of minority voters, filed a lawsuit in May against a proposed voter referendum that seeks an independent commission to take over drawing Illinois’ political lines instead of the party in power. Arguing on their behalf was a top Chicago elections lawyer who has long represented the leader of the Democratic Party of Illinois, House Speaker Michael Madigan.

But every line of quarterly disclosures The People’s Map filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections shows as zero. The People’s Map also doesn’t disclose any pro bono work or $12,000 in union donations that emerge in state filings by the unions from July to October of last year, saying they never cashed the checks.

The lack of disclosures, or any monetary details, raises questions about how the group is functioning and who is covering legal fees, scrutiny that comes as a judge is expected to decide this week whether the remap question is constitutional for the ballot.

At issue is a petition-driven referendum brought by a group called the Independent Map Amendment. The proposal threatens to diminish the power of Democratic leaders who have controlled political mapmaking in Illinois. The coalition wants an 11-member commission to draw legislative boundaries, claiming the current process is partisan and the lawsuit is an effort by “entrenched interests.” Several other states have passed similar measures to take redistricting out of the hands of partisan politicians and hand it to an independent commission.

Madigan’s spokesman, Steve Brown, has said neither Madigan nor the Democratic party is involved. But he has criticized the business backgrounds of the Independent Maps group and questioned their intentions. The coalition for the independent commission includes former Tribune Co. Chairman Dennis FitzSimons, Republican former Gov. Jim Edgar and Democratic former White House chief of staff Bill Daley.

People’s Map chairman John Hooker declined an interview through a spokesman and said questions about legal fees should posed to Michael Kasper, the lead attorney of five listed in the lawsuit. Kasper, who’s also represented Senate President John Cullerton and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has repeatedly declined comment. He didn’t respond to questions Tuesday.

“The reports filed by the People’s Map are accurate,” Hooker said in a statement. “The committee has neither accepted nor deposited any contributions.”

The union donations - which emerge in the election board’s database when expenditures involving The People’s Map are searched - are from six groups including Illinois PAC for Education, Laborers’ Political Action and Education League, and Service Employees International Union Local 73 Bi-Partisan PAC.

Representatives from the unions either didn’t return messages or immediately have explanations. . At least one PAC representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers voided its July 22, 2015, check.

The Board of Elections’ director of campaign disclosure, Tom Newman, said The People’s Map should offer an explanation. Newman, who was made aware of the discrepancy by The Associated Press, said elections officials would seek clarification.

The Independent Maps coalition - which brought the new remap proposal after Kasper successfully fought a similar one in 2014 - also called for more answers.

“Illinois citizens deserve to know whose money is behind the People’s Map, the group that through costly litigation is trying to deny voters the chance to change a deeply flawed system,” FitzSimons said.

What has emerged publicly about the group is sparse and contradictory. In August, The People’s Map circulated letters blasting the intent of the redistricting proposal, saying Republicans wanted it because it would diminish the number of Democratic districts.

“While proponents of these ‘reforms’ talk about fairness, we believe the results of allowing an independent commission to draw the map will be anything but fair to minorities, and will prevent minorities from electing the candidates of their choice,” reads an August 14 letter signed by Hooker, a former ComEd executive appointed to the Chicago Housing Authority board by Emanuel. Other members of The People’s Map and union officials also signed it.

Yet, in a Dec. 2 letter to election officials, Kasper said The People’s Map was formed in anticipation of the redistricting question and was yet to take a position.

“The committee cannot, at this time, identify whether it will support or oppose such question because, as of today’s date, no such propositions have been presented for consideration,” he wrote in the letter.

None of the group’s arguments about an adverse impact on minorities were ever raised in court.

Campaign finance and good government experts said the lack of group’s disclosures deserves more scrutiny.

“It definitely raises questions that they’re not there,” Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said of the union donations.

Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the intent of campaign finance law is clear: “If you get money of $1,000 or more then that needs to be disclosed in a timely manner.”

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Follow Sophia Tareen at https://twitter.com/sophiatareen.

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