Two Cook County judges, indicted Ald. Ed Burke partnered in investment club

This story was co-published with the Chicago Sun-Times.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Thursday afternoon, Jan. 3, 2019.

Two sitting Cook County circuit judges and three retired judges are partners in a  company with attorneys including indicted Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), records show.

Participants in the company, called Table of Wisdom LLC, say it’s an investment club formed by a group of longtime friends who regularly met for breakfast and decided to pool their money so they’d have something to talk about.

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Two of the partners in Table of Wisdom are sitting circuit court judges:

  • Cook County Circuit Judge Michael Toomin, who is the presiding judge of the juvenile division and is running in November for another six-year term. Toomin might be more widely known as the judge who appointed former U.S. Attorney Dan K. Webb as special prosecutor in two high-profile cases, investigating Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office’s handling of the Jussie Smollett case and reinvestigating the death of David Koschman. That case resulted in former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and going to jail.
  • Cook County Circuit Judge James Shapiro, who hears family law cases in the domestic relations division.

Both declined to comment.

Other members include:

  • Burke, the longtime Southwest Side alderman who is charged in a May 2019 federal racketeering and extortion indictment that accuses him of using his position on the Chicago City Council to withhold construction permits for a Burger King in his ward in an unsuccessful bid to get the restaurant to hire his law firm for property tax appeals. He has pleaded not guilty and remains in office. Burke did not respond to requests for comment.
  • Retired judges Margarita Kulys Hoffman, Clifford Meachem and Warren Wolfson.
  • Attorney Barry Greenburg, who runs a firm focused on family law.
  • And attorneys Marvin Leavitt and Michael Stiegel, who practice family law together in the Chicago firm that Leavitt started after he retired from the Illinois Appellate Court.

Judges aren’t explicitly prohibited from joining such investment clubs in Illinois, according to retired Lake County Circuit Judge Ray McKoski, now an adjunct professor teaching judicial ethics at UIC John Marshall Law School.

Sun-Times file

Judge Michael Toomin speaks following the swearing in of former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb during a status hearing concerning actor Jussie Smollett at the Leighton Criminal Court building, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019.

But Illinois law warns of the potential for conflicts of interest when judges go into business with attorneys. Judges should refrain from financial and business dealings that “involve the judge in frequent transactions with lawyers or persons likely to come before the court on which the judge serves,” according to the Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct.

Other states have taken a firmer stand on investment clubs. Judicial ethics boards in New York and Massachusetts have said judges should not participate in investment clubs.

“In our view, if a judge should not give investment advice to a charity, a judge should not be giving investment advice to twenty private persons in an investment club,” the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s Committee on Judicial Ethics wrote in a 1995 advisory opinion.

Table of Wisdom reflects the court system’s reputation as being largely white, older men with financial and personal ties to each other and the Democratic Party. Of the ten partners Toomin disclosed in forms submitted to the Illinois Supreme Court, the nine that could be identified are white and all but one are men.

More than 70 percent of the Cook County judiciary is white, compared with 42 percent of the county’s population, and nearly 60 percent of judges are men, according to 2018 statistics provided by Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans.

Table of Wisdom was incorporated in May 2018, according to filings with the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. Leavitt is the group’s registered agent.

Leavitt’s law firm was the third-highest contributor to the political action committee set up to retain Cook County judges, giving a total of $20,260, as of 2018.

Kulys Hoffman, who retired from the bench last year, said Table of Wisdom is an  investment club. She wouldn’t say how much money members were expected to contribute to the investment fund and said she doesn’t know whether the group is still active.

Though Table of Wisdom filed its annual report in May with the Illinois secretary of state’s office, Steigel said the company disbanded earlier this year over “disagreements” on where to invest.

Steigel said Leavitt was the group’s founder. A former circuit and appellate judge who served on the Illinois Appellate Court with Burke’s wife, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, Leavitt returned to private practice in 2002. He practices family law as a founding partner of Grund & Leavitt.

John Seasly contributed reporting.