McSweeney mulls lawsuit over ‘defamatory’ Blagojevich video

Illinois Capitol News

Illinois state Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Louisville, wears a face mask as he walks through the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield, Ill., before the legislative session begins Thursday, May 22, 2020. Bailey was removed from the floor Wednesday for not complying with a House rule that required face coverings. The Illinois House of Representatives is conducting their spring session at the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield, Ill., instead of in their chamber in the Illinois Capitol building a few blocks away because it affords more space for to practice social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [Pool photo by Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register]

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — An Illinois Republican who plans to retire from the legislature and run for statewide office threatened a lawsuit to take down a personalized video message recorded by former Governor Rod Blagojevich.

When state Representative David McSweeney (R-Barrington Hills) found out that a video of Blagojevich wishing him a happy retirement was making the rounds in statehouse circles in March, he sicced his lawyers after the online celebrity shoutout company Cameo to take it down.

Court records filed in Cook County show attorneys for Baron App, Inc., which does business as Cameo, appeared in court to respond to McSweeney’s filing on April 3rd. The video has since disappeared from the company’s popular website.

Cameo recruits celebrities to record loosely scripted video messages for their fans at a small fee. Blagojevich began selling video greetings to fans on the website shortly after President Trump commuted his 14-year prison sentence for federal public corruption charges.

McSweeney would not directly respond to questions about the case, nor would he agree to an interview, but sent a written statement through a spokesman.

“We filed an action for pre-suit discovery in Cook County against Baron App., Inc. d/b/a Cameo to discover the identity of the person or persons responsible for the false and defamatory video featuring Rod Blagojevich on the Cameo’s website,” McSweeney said Tuesday afternoon.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Gillespie ordered Cameo to hand over records pertaining to the Blagojevich video on March 13th, 2020. McSweeney then dismissed the discovery petition, but says he is still considering filing a lawsuit for defamation.

“We are currently reviewing the materials and conducting further investigation based on those materials, to determine the appropriate action to take against those responsible for the defamatory video,” McSweeney’s statement said.

John Bambanek, a Champaign Republican who ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Illinois state Senate in 2012, purchased the video and authored the script.

In a cease and desist letter dated May 14th, McSweeney’s attorneys at Burke, Costanza and Carberry, told Bambanek, “The video message contains many false and defamatory statements concerning my client’s ‘friendship with Blagojevich’ and implies a close connection to Blagojevich and his illegal activities.

“We believe that our client has claims against you, and others acting in concert with you, including claims for defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and related torts,” the letter reads. “These claims would entitle my client to presumed and compensatory damages for the reputational harm you have caused, as well as punitive damages.”

The letter from McSweeney’s attorney suggests he suspects House Republican Leader Jim Durkin or his inner circle may have had some role in sponsoring the video message. The cease and desist letter instructed Bambanek to preserve any documents of communications he may have had with Durkin, Rep. Grant Wehrli (R-Naperville), and four other legislative and political staff members.

“I’ve never had a conversation with Jim Durkin in my life,” Bambanek said on Wednesday. “Nobody put me up to it.”

Bambanek, who relishes his role as an online provocateur, used the video of Illinois’ most popular corrupt politician to needle McSweeney for his close relationship with House Speaker Michael Madigan’s longtime confidante and clouted former lobbyist Mike McClain.

“If McSweeney wants to be chairman of the Mike McClain supper club, you’ll pardon me if I question his credentials as a reformer and conservative,” Bambanek said, dubbing McClain a ringleader in the “patronage class of the Democratic Party.”

Bambanek’s reference alluded to two March interviews where McSweeney acknowledged his frequent dining habits and close relationship with McClain, but explained their relationship as an exercise of bipartisanship.

McSweeney has built an online reputation as a flamethrower, casually torching House Republican Leader Jim Durkin as “corrupt” in a barrage of tweets without providing any evidence to substantiate his allegations. 

McSweeney’s recent legal actions, which have not previously been reported, show an even deeper pattern of contempt and suspicion toward the minority leader.

McSweeney’s reputation management crisis comes at a time of transition in his political career. On September 5th, 2019, he suddenly announced his plans to retire from the legislature and take two years off before he said he could launch a potential bid for the U.S. Senate or for Illinois Secretary of State.

In the days immediately prior to his exit announcement, McSweeney was fighting to keep his seat in Springfield. According to several sources familiar who he approached, McSweeney was convinced Durkin was preparing to run a primary challenger against him in 2020. 

Despite their personal disagreements, Durkin’s camp and the Illinois Republican Party denied any involvement in a plan to oust incumbent legislators. 

No primary challenger had yet emerged when McSweeney suddenly decided to bail.

Perhaps to Bambanek’s surprise, a portion of his purchase on Cameo put money in the pockets of two Illinois Democratic governors, not just Blagojevich. The celebrity video company is a member of 1871, the Chicago tech startup hub founded by Governor J.B. Pritzker. According to Pritzker’s statement of economic interest and the Pritzker Group’s portfolio, the billionaire governor’s company provided venture capital to Cameo in 2018.

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