This story has been updated.
As the race for the Illinois Supreme Court heats up with weeks to come, questions arise about the contributions incumbent Justice Michael Burke has previously received and subsequent appointments he has made.
Campaign contribution records reviewed by NBC 5 Investigates show that Burke’s campaign, the “Citizens to Elect Judge Michael J Burke” committee, received $5,996 from the husband of a DuPage Circuit Court judge. whom Burke had nominated and later nominated for the position.
Burke also received an additional $5,550 from a company the judge’s husband works for.
The contributions were made months before Judge Kavita Athanikar was appointed to the DuPage Circuit Court bench.
Burke’s campaign spokesman Jon Nelson told NBC 5 in part that “Any insinuation that the political activity of [Athanikar’s] husband played a role in his appointment is absurd.”
Through a firm specializing in crisis public relations, Kavita Athanikar told NBC 5, “These are baseless allegations in the throes of an impassioned campaign.”
Allegations that the donations may have influenced Burke’s choice to appoint Athanikar to the Circuit Court bench were raised by “Protect our yard”, a social protection agency.
Protect Our Court states on its website that it “does not raise or spend money to support political candidates,” but advocates “protecting the Supreme Court of Illinois” from “conservative scrutiny of ‘far right”.
Burke’s campaign donations were made by Judge Athanikar’s husband, Manas Athanikar, and the company he currently works for as executive vice president, Batavia Container Inc in Batavia, Ill.
Almost a year ago, on Oct. 23, 2021, campaign contribution records show that Manas Athanikar donated $5,996 to Burke’s campaign for “promotional gifts (vest, t-shirts), food, drinks” and a “golf gift”.
That same day, and three days later, Batavia Container Inc. and some of its employees also contributed a total of $5,500 to Burke’s campaign. Contribution records show that these donations were for “event signage and beverages” at White Eagle Golf Club and Glenn Oak Country Club.
A spokesperson for Manas Athanikar told NBC 5 that donations made by Batavia Container Inc. or its employees are not attributed to him.
More than two months after the donations, on Jan. 5, the DuPage Circuit Court announced that Manas’ wife, Kavita Athanikar, had been nominated for a DuPage Circuit Court judicial position that would be released in March. after the retirement of the Honorable Robert Kleeman, according to a press release from DuPage Circuit Court.
Prior to his appointment, Athanikar had been an associate judge at the DuPage Circuit Court since 2018.
It was Judge Burke who nominated Athanikar for the position, and she was appointed after a unanimous vote by the state Supreme Court on which Burke sits.
Athanikar was also later appointed to a Supreme Court Justice and Mental Health Advisory Committee that Burke serves as a liaison to the Supreme Court, according to a press release from DuPage Circuit Court of this past May.
Records reviewed by NBC 5 show that some of Manas Athanikar’s contributions to Burke’s campaign specifically listed a home address that Manas and Judge Kavita Athanikar share in Naperville.
Campaign contribution data shows that Manas Athanikar has donated to two other state campaigns in the past two years.
Manas Athanikar contributed $1,000 in 2021 to DuPage Circuit Court Judge Mike Reidy’s campaign, and another $250 this year to the campaign of Stefanie Hood, who is running for the seat of Rep. Illinois District 42 Chamber.
Records show Batavia Container Inc., the company Manas works for, only contributed to Judge Burke’s campaign.
While Athanikar initially planned to seek an additional term on the DuPage Circuit Court bench, in recent months she abruptly announced her retirement.
Athanikar announced in August that she was quitting her judgeship and stepping back from her race to seek medical treatment, citing a health issue.
After nearly a week of asking Kavita Athanikar for comment, a PR firm representing her and her husband told NBC 5 that the allegations raised were nonsense.
“Absolutely, I never asked to be appointed to the Circuit Court,” read Kavita Athanikar’s statement. “I was honored when Justice Bob Thomas and Justice Mike Burke asked me to play this role. Hosting meet-and-greet events for candidates is a foundation of our democratic process.”
The Athanikars PR firm also pointed out that the meet and greet event for Judge Burke’s campaign took place before the retirement of DuPage Circuit Court Judge Robert Kleeman was publicly announced on December 21. . according to an official opinion of the courtsand that there was no way for anyone to know at the time of Burke’s campaign event the upcoming vacancy for the judgeship for which she was subsequently nominated.
This all plays out as the race for the Illinois Supreme Court heats up, especially for incumbent Supreme Court Justice Michael Burke.
Burke was first nominated to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Robert Thomas in March 2020 and is running in the general election for an additional term.
Burke’s campaign told NBC 5 that Kavita Athanikar was selected and nominated based on her merits, nothing more.
“While serving as a circuit judge, Athanikar was the only person of color and one of six women on the bench as a circuit judge,” the campaign said. “It is important that branches of government, including our courts, reflect the makeup of the communities they serve. That’s part of why she was considered for nomination by former Justice Bob Thomas, Justice Burke, and the Illinois Supreme Court as a whole.
Campaign spokesperson Nelson said, “Prior to her unanimous, bipartisan nomination by the Illinois Supreme Court, Justice Athanikar was considered for nomination by former Supreme Court Justice Bob Thomas. Prior to that, she was appointed as an Associate Judge by the Circuit Judges of the 18th Judicial Circuit in 2018.”
The campaign also shared that on Sept. 2, the DuPage County Bar Association Judiciary Committee rated Athanikar as “highly recommended” ahead of the 2022 general election.
Athanikar’s note is no longer listed on the DCBA websiteand the DCBA did not respond to requests from NBC 5 to verify whether it had issued that rating for Athanikar.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify additional points shared by an Athanikars spokesperson after its initial publication.