Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s political organization is again on the defensive — this time over possible links to an accused killer who was involved in a Democratic push to unseat the state’s top House Republican.
Politics and murder don’t typically intersect outside of fiction. But those themes came together in a southwest suburban legislative campaign to topple House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, one of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s top allies.
The little-known circumstances surrounding a short-lived, party-backed effort to reorder the Democratic field against Durkin poses a new embarrassment for Madigan’s once-untouchable political operation, which is still reeling from unrelated charges of sexual harassment and bullying.
A lead character in this story reported exclusively by WBEZ is a former Willow Springs Little League coach and stock trader named Michael Pelko, a married father of two now in Cook County Jail on murder charges.
The brief role Pelko played in this year’s 82nd House District race was blessed by Madigan’s inner circle and, in the end, wound up contributing to the abrupt withdrawal earlier this year of a promising candidate Democrats had hoped to run against Durkin.
“It really felt like I was riding a roller coaster with a blindfold on,” said Elyse Hoffenberg, a lawyer and school board member from LaGrange who pulled the plug on her candidacy after reading shocking allegations against a man intent on helping her campaign.
In January, Pelko, 37, was charged in the 2017 murder of longtime friend Izat Morrar, whose body was found in a South Side alley after he’d been shot twice in the head at close range. Cook County prosecutors allege Pelko owed money to Morrar, who had complained about that fact to friends and family.
Challenging the candidate’s wife’s signature
Pelko’s arrest came nearly five weeks after he had filed a detailed, 147-page complaint with the State Board of Elections against Hoffenberg’s Democratic opponent in a move that would have cleared the field for her to take on Durkin this fall.
The petition challenge was a big feat for a political neophyte like Pelko, whose political involvement included $800 in campaign donations to a political fund tied to State Sen. Steven Landek, a Bridgeview Democrat, and a voting history in only three elections dating back to 2016.
His December complaint was directed at Democratic House candidate Tom Chlystek, a Darien alderman who sought to get on the ballot without the party’s blessing. Chlystek had submitted 1,330 signatures of registered voters to the state election board, well in excess of the 500 needed to gain ballot access. Pelko challenged the validity of 908 of Chlystek’s signatures, even the one belonging to Chlystek’s wife.
Signs of involvement
Madigan’s office has denied involvement in the petition challenge or any association among Pelko, the speaker or Madigan’s aldermanic ally and political confidante, Marty Quinn.
“Mr. Pelko was never affiliated with the 13th Ward organization or any of the speaker’s political organizations,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown told WBEZ. “Neither the speaker nor Alderman Quinn know Mr. Pelko.”
Brown said the Democratic Party of Illinois, which Madigan has chaired since 1998, did not participate in any petition challenges in the 2018 primary cycle. Brown did acknowledge that the House Democratic political arm had staff and volunteers that helped coordinate petition filing and objections.
“However, no one affiliated with the Democratic Majority asked Mr. Pelko to file the objection to a candidate’s petition,” Brown said.
But three top current and former Madigan aides left their political fingerprints either on the challenge to Chlystek’s spot on the ballot or to Elyse Hoffenberg’s candidacy, state records show.
Madigan election lawyer Michael Kasper represented Pelko before the state election board.
State records show ex-House Clerk Timothy Mapes, a former Madigan chief of staff and state party executive director, inspected Chlystek’s nominating petitions five days before Pelko’s complaint was filed. Mapes was ousted from his state and party jobs in June after harassment and bullying allegations were lodged against him by an employee.
And Elyse Hoffenberg’s own nominating petitions were notarized by another ex-staffer in Madigan’s political organization, Kevin Quinn. The brother of Ald. Quinn (13th), Kevin Quinn was jettisoned from the speaker’s political organization in February for his role in a sexual harassment texting scandal.
Landek, a Madigan confidante and Lyons Township Democratic committeeman, said the order to challenge Chlystek’s nominating petitions came from the state Democratic Party, and the local political organization responded by suggesting Pelko as an objector.
Besides being involved in local civic organizations, Pelko was a registered voter in Durkin’s district, the only requirement necessary under state law to mount a petition challenge.
“We asked Mike Pelko if he was interested in doing it, then we referred the name to the state party. Because of our association with Pelko and no one knew his real intent in his heart, they accepted it, ” Landek said.
Landek stressed no one in the party knew anything about Pelko’s possible involvement in the Morrar murder. Chicago Police Department records obtained by WBEZ show Pelko was arrested in connection with the murder six days after it happened, but Pelko was not charged then.
“Everybody was duped by him,” Landek said. “Nobody knew.”
A call to political service
Hoffenberg said she was motivated to run for the House seat after being inspired by Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. She said she was told by Landek that no other Democrat besides her was circulating nominating petitions.
In September, as she was seeking volunteers to get her candidacy launched, Hoffenberg said Pelko approached her at a campaign event with a grandiose promise to gather “thousands” of signatures for her. He “claimed he knew everybody” within the legislative district, she said.
“When I met him, he came across as being a guy who had something else going on,” Hoffenberg said in an interview.
She described his demeanor as uncomfortably “effusive” and “over the top” and recalled him saying: “You’re going to be a star, and I’m going to make you a star.”
It was all part of an effort by Pelko to get politically active, said his criminal defense attorney, Michael Ettinger.
“He was trying to get involved in politics,” Ettinger told WBEZ. “He started with trying to get on the school board at [Pleasantdale School] District 107, and he was helping someone run for state office and gathering petitions and was very active in the campaign.”
State records show Pelko did not wind up circulating any of Hoffenberg’s nominating petitions by the filing deadline in December.
But he did emerge unexpectedly with his ballot challenge to an opponent she had not counted on having in the race.
Hoffenberg said she had “absolutely no involvement” in the Pelko petition complaint and was blindsided by it. When she saw Pelko’s name, she recalled him as “the guy who came on really strong at the petition drive back in September so that was kind of jarring.”
Four days after the election board complaint was filed, Pelko was arrested and charged with aggravated battery and retail theft in Will County. He allegedly shoplifted about $1,300 worth of goods from a Menard’s home-improvement store in far southwest suburban Homer Glen then ran down a security guard with his car in the store parking lot, according to court records and interviews.
On Dec. 28, roughly two weeks after that felony arrest, Kasper filed paperwork with the state election board to withdraw Pelko’s signature complaint against Chlystek.
In an interview, Kasper said he was “completely unaware” of the Will County arrest and the murder charges against Pelko until being informed last week by WBEZ. Kasper was also fuzzy about the circumstances behind how he came to represent Pelko.
“I don’t recall how he got my name or who referred him to me,” Kasper said. “Usually, I get these types of cases through a referral from somebody. Who may have referred him to me, I don’t know. I don’t have a recollection of that.”
But the election lawyer who wound up representing Chlystek said it was clear to him who was behind the Pelko petition challenge and Kasper’s involvement.
“[Kasper] never takes anybody who the speaker would disapprove of,” said attorney Michael Dorf, a longtime legal rival of Kasper’s who has practiced election law in Illinois since the 1990s and once counted Barack Obama as a client.
Kasper disputed any assertion the speaker had tacit knowledge of Pelko’s objection.
“To the extent that Mr. Dorf is saying this was sanctioned by Speaker Madigan or anyone else at the Democratic Party, I don’t have any reason to believe that that’s accurate,” Kasper said.
Parting with politics
Regardless of the political machinations behind Pelko’s petition challenge, Hoffenberg said she had begun weighing whether to stay in the race after seeing his involvement. The clincher came, she said, when she read a Chicago newspaper report in January about Pelko’s arrest for murder.
“You know, I have three young children. I really don’t live that far from him. So the whole thing just made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe, to be honest with you,” she said.
Dorf said the lack of vetting in the Pelko case leaves a blemish on Madigan and the state Democratic Party, particularly given all of the upheaval that has existed this year as the speaker has been forced to clean house because of sexual harassment and bullying allegations within his inner circle.
“This is a huge embarrassment. This is the drip, drip, drip that’s just wearing away the stone. I can’t believe that if they were paying attention, they’d have allowed something like this to happen,” Dorf said.
Over his lengthy career in state election law, Dorf said this case stands out.
“We’ve had objectors who have been unsavory and people who are total party hacks,” he said. “But I guess I’ve never seen one who became an objector in the middle of a murder investigation.”
Rep. Durkin did not respond to a WBEZ request for comment nor did Izat Morrar’s family.
As far as Hoffenberg, her abandoned run for the Illinois legislature has left her feeling disillusioned with politics.
“I think I had rose-colored glasses on…and that I just trusted everything was OK,” she said. “I don’t know. It went south. Everything went south. A handful of the people who I encountered during this process ended up having all kinds of negative things. I’m sort of happy to be back in my life where the worst thing that happens is our toilet gets clogged up or our backyard floods. That’s a much more comfortable place for me.”
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state politics for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.