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Illinois attorney general candidate Thomas DeVore has a record of suing critics

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Thomas DeVore, the Republican nominee for Illinois attorney general, speaks during a “Make Illinois Great” rally at the Kane County Fair Grounds on Sunday.

While running for a downstate school board seat five years ago, Republican Illinois attorney general candidate Thomas DeVore complained in a Facebook post about students who struggled to make correct change at a concession stand during a basketball game.

“Lord help us with the window lickers, I mean special children,” DeVore, a civil attorney from Sorento, wrote.

People critical of DeVore’s post shared it more widely and in one case urged area residents to contact his law office. DeVore proceeded to file a libel lawsuit in Montgomery County against three people, including a local special education teacher, alleging they had falsely accused him of ridiculing “children with ‘special needs.’”

That made it “seemingly impracticable for DeVore to seek public office as a school board member” and harmed his law practice, the lawsuit alleged.

Court records show DeVore ultimately dismissed the lawsuit in May 2020, just as he was gaining notoriety statewide for his legal challenges to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s coronavirus mandates. While those efforts were largely unsuccessful, they served as a springboard for his campaign to be the state’s top legal officer.

The 2017 lawsuit was not an isolated incident but rather one in a series of cases in which DeVore has responded to public criticism with legal action. Most notably, he sued Pritzker last year after the governor called him “a grifter” during a news conference.

In another case, a judge in downstate Christian County is expected to rule shortly before the Nov. 8 election on a motion to dismiss a defamation lawsuit DeVore filed in May against the mother of his girlfriend, whose business he represented in an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging Pritzker’s COVID-19 orders.

The ongoing lawsuit, along with two unsuccessful libel and defamation lawsuits that preceded it, not only places DeVore’s personal life in the public eye but also raises questions about how he would deal with detractors as a statewide elected official should he prevail in the Nov. 8 general election over first-term Democratic incumbent Attorney General Kwame Raoul.

DeVore mug

DeVore

Kwame Raoul

Raoul

“It runs a real risk of him looking frivolous and not serious as somebody who’s now running for attorney general and so would be supervising state attorneys throughout the state of Illinois,” said Benjamin Bricker, an associate professor of political science and law at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

DeVore, 53, a small-town attorney who has the words “liberty” and “freedom” tattooed on his forearms, received his law degree from Saint Louis University and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 2011. Before mounting his challenges to Pritzker’s executive orders during the heights of the pandemic, he focused primarily on civil litigation, including property disputes and family law, he told the Tribune in May. An outspoken critic of Pritzker and Raoul, as well as the state’s GOP establishment, DeVore has focused much of his campaign on the issues of crime and political corruption, along with continued critiques of the governor’s handling of COVID-19. His only prior experience in elected office was a single two-year term on the Bond County Board a decade ago.

DeVore declined to answer questions about the three libel and defamation lawsuits, telling the Tribune in an email that he would not “provide comment to any statewide news agency on any issue of statewide importance on any topic now as a candidate, or as AG should (we) be successful” unless that media outlet reported on a specific corruption allegation he has raised repeatedly on social media and on the campaign trail.

“I’ll respond to any article you might write directly to the people, but I will not participate in your one-sided creations that you conveniently decide to write just weeks before the election,” DeVore wrote.

Raoul, whose office defended Pritzker against DeVore’s defamation allegations, criticized his opponent’s use of litigation.

“Over and over, Mr. DeVore has turned to the courts to settle personal scores,” Raoul said in a statement. “He has unnecessarily burdened court resources and taxpayer dollars with frivolous and unsuccessful lawsuits.”

As he was seeking the school board seat in Hillsboro in 2017, DeVore took to Facebook to express dissatisfaction with his experience at the school concession stand, court records show.

“We got two sodas, two popcorn and a candy. It took a good minute for the kids to come up with the $7 total,” DeVore wrote in the post, included as part of an exhibit in his Montgomery County lawsuit.

“I gave her a $20 and two $1′s. The special child (that’s politically correct for window licker) looked at me and argued it was only $7. I said I know. She was clueless. Then here comes special child #2 who hands me the two $1′s back. I told her I don’t want them back and figure it out. I finally gave up after all four special children were lost. I had to tell them to give me $15 back and that I did it because I didn’t want any $1 bills. Lord help us with the window lickers, I mean special children.”

DeVore alleged in the lawsuit that the special education teacher and another defendant, both downstate residents who declined to comment for this story, shared the post publicly even after he had reached out to the teacher “with additional information and explained he had not in any fashion criticized any ‘special needs’ children.”

The lawsuit also alleged that a third defendant, whom DeVore acknowledged in a subsequent court filing was likely someone using “a presumably fictitious name,” published a flyer that included an image of the Facebook post and read: “This is Thomas DeVore in real life. He is running for our school board in Montgomery County, Illinois. If you would like to contact him to let him know what you think of his position on disabilities, please contact him.”

The flyer then gave the name, address and phone number of DeVore’s law office in Greenville, Illinois.

In a 2017 interview, DeVore noted to St. Louis TV station KSDK that he used the phrase “special child,” not “special needs child” and said he was not referring to children with disabilities.

As for the phrase “window licker,” generally recognized as a derogatory term for an intellectually disabled person, DeVore said he “grew up in a different era.”

“That word, which you can find in a slang dictionary, was used in my time to refer to irritating, unruly, mean, disrespectful, right to people’s face,” he told KSDK.

He told the station that as an attorney, he used “courts to get fairness and equity.”

“I didn’t know how else to get my voice heard, in order to say ‘No, this is not what happened,’” he said.

DeVore finished with the fewest votes among four candidates vying for three seats on the school board.

He dropped the suit against the special education teacher and the “presumably fictitious” person soon after it was filed, and the case against the third defendant languished until DeVore moved for a voluntary dismissal, with the stipulation that he could not refile the case, in May 2020.

DeVore’s response to a perceived personal affront was similar last fall when Pritzker, asked about the lawsuits DeVore filed on behalf of parents against school districts’ COVID-19 policies, said: “He’s a grifter who is taking money from parents who are being taken advantage of. … We are trying to keep kids and parents and grandparents and teachers and everybody that’s in the community … of the school safe.”

The governor went on to accuse DeVore of tying up the resources of the attorney general’s office defending against “these ridiculous lawsuits.”

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Thomas DeVore, Republican candidate for Illinois attorney general, speaks to attendees during a “Make Illinois Great” rally at the Kane County Fair Grounds on Sunday.

DeVore, who at the time had declared his candidacy for a state appellate court seat in southern Illinois, sued Pritzker in Sangamon County, home to Springfield, eight days later. In the complaint, DeVore’s attorney cited the Merriam-Webster definition of “grift” and alleged that the governor had “imputed that (DeVore) had committed a criminal action.”

The lawsuit, which argued that Pritzker’s statement was “so obviously and materially harmful to the Plaintiff” that the law didn’t require DeVore “to actually prove damage to his reputation,” sought more than $50,000 in damages.

In a motion to dismiss on Pritzker’s behalf, Raoul’s office argued that the governor’s statements were “legally protected opinion, at worst name-calling, and DeVore is a public figure whose conduct thus is fair game for public critique.”

Further, the attorney general’s office argued that the state is shielded from claims for monetary damages in most instances and that Pritzker as governor enjoys “absolute immunity” from defamation claims when expressing opinions related to his public duties.

Before a court hearing was held on the state’s motion to dismiss, DeVore voluntarily dropped his lawsuit in March as he was campaigning for the Republican nomination for attorney general.

About two months later, DeVore was back in court with another defamation lawsuit, this time filed against Julie Craig, the mother of his 27-year-old girlfriend, hair salon owner Riley Craig.

The lawsuit, filed in early May in Christian County, near Springfield, alleges that Julie Craig in April published an online article under a pseudonym that accused DeVore of domestic abuse and attorney misconduct, among other allegations. In a sworn statement filed in response to the lawsuit, Julie Craig “categorically” denied being the author of the article and said she wasn’t involved in its creation and doesn’t know the author.

The article, published April 25 under the name Roger Casteel on the website Substack, stemmed from an incident that took place days earlier after the Sangamon County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner in Springfield.

Springfield police responded in the early morning hours of April 20 to a call from the estranged husband of DeVore’s girlfriend, police and court records show. The husband reported that he’d received a call from his wife about an argument with DeVore.

Police body camera footage obtained through a freedom of information request from the Tribune shows officers speaking with Riley Craig, who is crying and appears distraught, along with her parents and her estranged husband, whom she is in the process of divorcing.

After a lengthy conversation, during which she did not allege any physical abuse, Riley Craig told the officers she needed to retrieve her belongings from DeVore’s hotel room, the body camera footage shows.

Officers accompanied Riley Craig to DeVore’s hotel room, where he answered the door wearing a T-shirt adorned with his picture and the phrase “Grifter Nation.” She retrieved her belongings without incident, and no charges were filed, records show.

Four days later, the Substack article appeared under the headline, “Attorney Tom DeVore Involved in Domestic Violence Incident,” according to a copy included as an exhibit in DeVore’s lawsuit.

The article, which is no longer online at its original location, alleged that DeVore “fled the scene” after the argument with his girlfriend, “knowing this can ruin his political campaign, even affect his ability to practice law in Illinois.”

The article also raised ethical questions about DeVore dating a married woman whom he has represented as a client. Riley Craig was the plaintiff in a lawsuit DeVore filed against Pritzker in July 2020 over the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions on businesses.

Illinois Supreme Court rules prohibit an attorney from having a sexual relationship with a client unless it predates the lawyer-client relationship.

The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, which regulates the admission and discipline of lawyers in the state, lists DeVore as authorized to practice with no record of discipline or pending proceedings. ARDC spokesman Steven Splitt said the agency does not “confirm or deny that any attorney is under investigation.”

In his lawsuit, DeVore alleges Julie Craig “created and published” the online article, which accused him of “multiple criminal actions,” causing “harm to his professional and public reputation with likely clients and with voters.”

DeVore also alleged that Julie Craig worked in concert with lawyer David Shestokas, one of the two opponents he defeated in the GOP primary for attorney general, and Bobby Piton, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in June.

Julie Craig declined to comment through her attorney.

But in a motion to dismiss, Craig’s attorney William Moran called the case a “wholly meritless lawsuit … aimed at silencing the mother of his young, married girlfriend at a time when he was and is running for a Constitutional Office in the State of Illinois.”

“DeVore is an admitted adulterer who desires to quell any public criticism by those that have personal knowledge of his abhorrent behavior,” the court filing stateds.

Craig’s attorney argued that the lawsuit runs afoul of the Citizen Participation Act, a 2007 state law designed to prevent public figures from using the courts to silence critics.

In a response filed with the court, DeVore’s attorney argued that the law does not apply in this case because the lawsuit is “genuinely seeking relief for damages for the alleged defamation.”

A judge in Christian County is expected to hear arguments on that issue in mid-October and rule by Oct. 24 — just two weeks before the general election — on whether the case should go on.

In the meantime, DeVore continues to wage a campaign for attorney general driven largely by the following he built through his COVID-19 lawsuits.

Late last month, he lent his campaign $250,001 — enough money to lift contribution limits for both himself and Raoul, who started July with more than $1 million in his campaign fund but has yet to report any additional contributions.

If DeVore wins, he’s promised to start a public corruption task force. At the top of his list to investigate, according to a recent Facebook post, are Pritzker, whom he recently called “a tyrannical trust fund baby with a God complex” in a separate post, and Raoul, whom in other posts he’s called “a liar” and “a lap dog.”

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