[Carla Burkhart, the SLAPPer, who also sits on the College of DuPage Foundation Board.]
* A SLAPP is a lawsuit filed as “Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation.”
* SLAPP lawsuits are intended to chill First Amendment protected Free Speech.
* A person filing a SLAPP lawsuit is called a “SLAPPER;” the target of a SLAPP is called “The Target.”
* The Edgar County Watchdogs are the leading government abuse watchdog group in the state of Illinois, having gained fame over the years for exposing corruption at the state and county level and for performing citizens’ arrests on government boards that violate Illinois’ Open Meetings Act.
* The SLAPP filed by Burkhart against the Watchdogs can be found here.
An interesting SLAPP lawsuit has been filed against the Edgar County Watchdogs in DuPage County, Illinois. The SLAPPER is a woman by the name of Carla Burkhart, who claims to run a business called “Herricane Graphics.” That’s right: she spells “Hurricane” with an “e” instead of a “u” because she apparently thinks that’s clever in a “feminist” way…when ironically enough “HERR” in German is the word for MISTER (and “Mister iCane” sounds like it could be an Apple-sponsored Batman villain, probably with a club foot or at least a limp). But, I digress.
The Edgar County Watchdogs are John Kraft and Kirk Allen, who happen to be two of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in Illinois politics. They run the website Illinois Leaks, which is a fascinating and informative read. For the last several years, one of their big projects has been exposing corruption at the College of DuPage. Their efforts have involved numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that uncovered wrongdoing committed by the College of DuPage Board (CoDB), mostly centered around contracts that were used by corrupt Board Members to move money into the hands of cronies or evade various legal requirements meant to keep this Board in check.
The CoDB frequently violates our state’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) as well and has often made important decisions behind closed doors and in secret when they were required to conduct such public business in open meetings. When a public entity tries to circumvent the OMA by conducting its business behind closed doors in secret instead of out in the open, the Attorney General of Illinois has the power to void whatever actions the public body took that were not performed in accordance with the OMA.
So, when Kraft & Allen prove OMA violations, there are big consequences for the College of DuPage, since whatever actions the board members took that were outside the parameters set by the OMA must be voided…and that means contracts the Board signed go POOF! and any monies moved around must be returned as if the Board’s actions never happened. An OMA violation is a big deal…but it takes members of the public scrutinizing board members’ actions to expose such violations and then petition the Attorney General to remedy the situation.
This is mind-numbingly boring to 99% of the people in our country (which is why our country is in the mess that it’s in). Filing FOIA requests and attending board meetings and poring over contracts to ensure the letter of the law is being followed might seem like punishment to regular people. Or, they would probably assume there is someone on the government payroll that is supposed to be doing this, so why should they volunteer to take up such tedious work? Again…this is why Illinois is in the mess that it’s in and has been that way for decades. Because FOIA requests and board oversight is boring the majority of the public can’t be bothered to even feign interest in this stuff.
But, if you are a fan of John Grisham novels, these FOIA battles with public bodies can get incredibly exciting here in Illinois…especially when a SLAPP is involved. Here in Illinois, when corrupt public officials get called out for their wrongdoing, they lash out and attack…because that’s just what the government does in Illinois. A SLAPP lawsuit is a particularly crafty and aggressive way of scaring away critics and chilling criticism since, as you can imagine, no one enjoys being sued. Public officials count on that and support one another when a SLAPP is filed, since hearing that a government watchdog has been sued for investigating or speaking out means that regular people will likely be afraid of getting involved in something like that themselves (since they don’t want to be sued).
You might not realize this (because even law schools don’t teach it), but the First Amendment has built into it something called the Right to Petition. This involves our constitutional right as Americans to petition our government for change and redress of grievances. How you can “petition” the government is vague and nebulous; it includes all manner of political activity and free speech.
Carla Burkhart is a member of the College of DuPage Foundation Board. The Edgar County Watchdogs caught Burkhart signing an Architect’s contract with the College of DuPage on behalf of her company, “Herricane Graphics,” for a large sum of money. The problem is that Burkhart is not a licensed architect. She was not legally allowed to sign an Architect’s contract. This is not a mere formality, as an Architect’s contract is a special contract that is exempt from the required bidding process for other kinds of services. So, in order to give Burkhart a sweetheart deal no-bid contract, the College of DuPage fraudulently had her sign an Architect’s contract with them to exempt her from the bidding process. This is classic Illinois corruption. Since Burkhart knew she was not an architect at the time she signed an Architect’s contract, there’s no way she didn’t know that what she was doing was wrong and illegal.
Kraft & Allen exposed this on Illinois Leaks here.
Burkhart is essentially suing the Watchdogs for more than $8 million because they reported on the bad things that Burkhart and the College of DuPage had been doing. She also sued them for using a picture of her that she posted online when they wrote about her wrongdoing.
This is the very definition of a SLAPP suit.
Illinois is one of a handful of states that actually have an anti-SLAPP law on the books. This is called the Citizen Protection Act (CPA). This means that the Watchdogs will be able to use the CPA as a defense against Burkhart’s SLAPP. In Illinois, a SLAPPer is on the hook for the legal costs incurred by the Targets of her SLAPP. Legal fees in cases like this could end up being in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Watchdogs also have the opportunity to countersue Burkhart for any damages they suffer as a result of her actions. In many cases, SLAPPers end up destroying their lives by filing meritless litigation like this in attempts to silence their critics.
Why do they do this?
I think it says a lot about the culture of corruption in Illinois. It takes a lot of gaul for a public official to walk into a lawyer’s office and indignantly say, “How dare they write about the terrible things I did! I want to sue them for millions!” I am amazed whenever lawyers take cases like Burkhart’s, but in Illinois the expectation is that when you sue someone — for whatever reason — that person will just settle to make it go away. So there are disreputable attorneys out there in shabby little offices who will take any case (just like in a John Grisham novel). They eke out their livings by filing things like SLAPPs, with the expectation that they can basically extort money out of someone to make the lawsuit go away. It’s basically a shakedown.
I think SLAPPers feel they can get away with this because a lot of media entities will just settle these things for “go-away” money. But, when a SLAPP targets a grassroots group like the Watchdogs, things get really interesting. Kraft & Allen no doubt will want their day in court. I highly doubt they will just settle this meritless suit without a big fight. If anyone in this state is willing to go toe to toe with a SLAPPer and invoke every provision of the Citizen Protection Act to hold someone like Burkhart accountable for filing a SLAPP, it is John Kraft and Kirk Allen.
I hope this is a SLAPP case that gains national attention. It really deserves to be observed and studied. It is unconscionable for Carla Burkhart to file a multi-million dollar lawsuit against people who called her out on signing an Architect’s contract when she is admittedly not an architect and for using a photo of her in news articles (which was covered by fair use). This kind of obvious SLAPP must not be tolerated. This is not Saudi Arabia and Carla Burkhart is not a sheik’s daughter.
It is worth watching this case for nothing else than the education it provides on government’s efforts to chill our shared First Amendment rights. Our liberty depends on the Silent Majority waking up to the realities of what SLAPPs can do to our communities.
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