Jackee Coe, The Republic
Peoria has hired a private law firm to investigate a city councilman who has family connections to a group that launched political attacks on a rival candidate.
A resident filed a complaint against Ben Toma, claiming Toma coordinated with an independent expenditure committee and had compensated a family member on that committee. Both are violations of state law.
The committee, called the Best Peoria Can Be, sent mailers slamming a rival candidate days before the primary election in August.
Toma said he had not known that a relative had formed the committee and funded the mailer, but the committee's address is listed as the house of Toma's mother, and his brother-in-law is the group's treasurer.
Toma has been on the council since being appointed in June. He has denied allegations that he had any involvement with the committee or knew anything about it but said he "can't refute the actual content of (the mailer) because it does appear to be true."
"This investigation is nothing but a political stunt, in my opinion, to try to change the subject from the content of what the attack was," he said.
Mailers sent to voters in the Mesquite District in northern Peoria claimed that because one of Toma's opponents, Bridget Binsbacher, has the support of firefighters, she "is owned by the unions" and could turn Peoria "into Detroit."Another claimed she would use the council position to steer funds to a non-profit where she is executive director.
The non-profit, the Peoria Diamond Club, receives some of its funding from the city and provides tens of thousands of volunteer hours at the city-owned sports complex during spring training, along with raising funds and administering grants for local youth groups.
Binsbacher said she would resign her post if she is elected to the council.
Still, a supporter of Binsbacher worked with her campaign team to craft a complaint against Toma, asking the city attorney for an investigation of whether Toma illegally collaborated with the committee.
Marvin Shadman said he filed the complaint because he doesn't like "dirty politics."
"I thought it was illegal what they were doing," he said. "You're not supposed to have your family involved in that, and to say that you don't know what's going on, I find that hard to believe."
The investigation has added to an already controversial election that saw a federal judge cancel the Aug. 26 primary days before the election after another candidate in the race, Ken Krieger, was twice was left off early ballots. The primary is set for Nov. 4, with a runoff on March 10, if necessary.
Because Toma is on the City Council, the city attorney hired a private law firm, Curtis, Goodwin, Sullivan, Udall and Schwab PLC, to investigate the complaint.
According to state law, independent-expenditure committees cannot have any coordination with candidates, including if any member of the expenditure committee also is a member of the candidate's campaign or any committee member receives "any form of compensation or reimbursement from the candidate."
In another twist, Toma's brother-in-law, who is the treasurer, also had been listed as an employee of Toma's real-estate firm on the firm's website.
Toma said his brother-in-law never worked for his company and was listed only as the information-technology manager for Toma Partners LLC because he set up a remote-access server for the company a few years ago and the only compensation he received was being listed on the company site. His name since has been removed.
Toma said his sister and brother-in-law are living with his parents while they are having a new home built, and he speculated that is why the committee's address is his mother's home.
He said he has cooperated with investigators, who he said have combed through his personal and professional emails, looked through company tax records and conducted interviews.
Attorney Phyllis Smiley, who is conducting the investigation, did not give any details of the investigation but said it will be completed before the Nov. 4 election.
Robert Johnson, Binsbacher's campaign manager, doubted Toma's claim that he has not been involved with the independent-expenditure committee because he said the amount of evidence is "remarkable."
"There are lots of independent expenditures and lots of independent-expenditure committees that are formed. We have never seen one this blatant," Johnson said. "It's ridiculous."