By Dave McKinney
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A vanquished challenger to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan filed a federal lawsuit on Monday against the longtime Democratic leader, accusing him of using dirty tactics to beat him in a March primary election.
Chicago Democrat Jason Gonzales accused Madigan of defaming him and crowding the primary with "phony" candidates to dilute his opposition.
Gonzalez named the 45-year incumbent, the speaker’s political funds, a top aide and his two other opponents, among others, in a 39-count lawsuit over an alleged scheme to swing the four-way race in the speaker's favor.
“Madigan won because he engaged in dirty, illegal, fraudulent tactics,” Gonzales, who finished second in his bid to topple Madigan with 27 percent of the vote, said in a telephone interview. Madigan received slightly more than 65 percent.
Madigan said in a statement that the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, was “without merit.”
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“Voters of my district soundly re-nominated me based on my strong record of service, giving me more than 65 percent of the vote, and they emphatically rejected Jason Gonzales because they knew he couldn’t be trusted,” said Madigan, who is Illinois' longest-serving officeholder, representing Chicago’s southwest side since 1971.
Neither Grasiela Rodriguez nor Joe Barboza, the two other candidates named in Gonzales' lawsuit, could be reached for comment.
Gonzales accused Madigan of falsely calling him a felon on television commercials and in political mailers based on several arrests and criminal convictions between 1991 and 1994, including the use of stolen credit cards as an 18-year-old.
Gonzales alleged that Madigan improperly publicized those criminal records, which should not have been made public after former Democratic Governor Pat Quinn granted a pardon and expunged Gonzales' criminal record in January 2015.
"Madigan's defamatory statement was one that harmed Gonzales' reputation to the extent it lowered Gonzales in the eyes of the community and deterred the community from associating with him," his lawsuit alleged.
"As a direct and proximate result of the foregoing acts and/or omissions by Madigan, Gonzales suffered injuries of a personal and pecuniary nature, including emotional distress, damage to reputation and further punishment despite being granted full pardons," the lawsuit said.
Gonzales also accused Madigan and his aides of diluting the Hispanic vote in a legislative district that is about 70 percent Latino by planting two opponents with Hispanic surnames on the ballot. Neither of the candidates, who collectively received nearly 8 percent of the vote, actively campaigned.
Gonzales’ case is being handled by Tony Peraica, a former Republican member of the Cook County board.
“I couldn’t find a Democratic lawyer who was wiling to take the case,” Gonzalez told Reuters. “Everybody was scared of Madigan.”
(Reporting by Dave McKinney; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)