Questions of residency had dogged Santiago since she announced her 6th Subcircuit judicial campaign in the Fall of 2011.
The timeline provided by the Courts Commission Order serves as the basis for the summary that follows.
Santiago, a career Assistant Public Defender before being slated for the bench, bought a house in 2005 on Spaulding Avenue. The house was in walking distance of the home where she grew up, on Potomac Avenue, but it was just a couple of blocks outside the 6th Subcircuit (it was just inside the 7th Subcircuit, if that's of vital import for you). She fixed up the house and moved in and lived there just like anyone else would live in their own house for a number of years.
But then Santiago was slated to run in the 6th Subcircuit. She could not continue to live in her own home and run for judge in the 6th Subcircuit. Goodman v. Ward, 241 Ill.2d 398, 412, 948 N.E.2d 580 (2011). So, she said, sometime in August or September 2011, she moved back to her parents' home.
Several other candidates coveted the vacancy for which Santiago was slated. Two challenges were filed to her candidacy, at least one of these asserting that Santiago lived in the house that she owned and not, as she claimed, back with the folks. The Courts Commission quotes from the hearing officer's opinion in one of those challenges in its August 18 Order, at p. 2: "The hearing officer found that despite 'a number of facts regarding [respondent's] residency that are not entirely plausible,' there was not sufficient evidence to 'conclusively establish' that respondent did not reside at the Potomac property." The Cook County Electoral Board adopted the hearing officer's findings and recommendation and Santiago was permitted to remain on the ballot.
And, of course, she won.
But she still had the house on Spaulding.
So, in June 2013, after taking judicial office, Santiago decided to refinance her mortgage on that property. She submitted a loan application to American Equity Mortgage (AEM). In the loan app and accompanying documents, Santiago made the following representations (Order, p. 2):
- in Section II, that the Spaulding property would be her "Primary Residence,"
- in Section III, that the Spaulding property was her "Present Address," and
- in Section IV, that she owned the Spaulding property as her primary residence.
FWIW readers will remember what happened next: WGN-TV and the Medill Watchdog Group collaborated on a series entitled "Judging the Judges." Prominently featured in the series were stories about subcircuit judges who might have moved, for one reason or another, from the subcircuits from which they were initially elected. I wrote about the series; from this archived post you can still read what WGN and Medill Watchdog had to say at the time about Judge Santiago's mortgage (I had not mentioned her by name in my post).
The Court Commission's August 18 Order notes (pp. 4-5) that, after the WGN pieces aired, Judge Santiago took corrective action. First, she repaid the homeowner's exemption on her taxes (she'd improperly claimed that, too) and, second, she notified her lender that she was not living at the property after all.
And Santiago's lender turned out to have a corporate heart of gold: It did not prosecute her for fraud but instead "attempted to help her rectify problems resulting from her claiming the Spaulding property [as] her primary residence" (p. 5). The lender did not even require Judge Santiago to refinance; although the lender acknowledged in writing that it had been notified that Santiago was not using the Spaulding home as her primary residence, the mortgage would be left as is.
Since then, Santiago has sold the house on Spaulding and bought another one safely within the confines of the Sixth Judicial Subcircuit. The tainted mortgage is gone.
Judge Santiago testified at her hearing before the Courts Commission (p. 5), "she never deliberately intended to deceive AEM, but admitted she was 'careless' in signing the mortgage documents. Respondent signed the 2013 mortgage documents in a room in the courthouse while she was on her lunch hour, and the entire process took only ten to fifteen minutes. She said she was rushed and did not actually read the documents, but just signed in the places she was required to sign. Respondent testified she has been humiliated and embarrassed by the incident, and she has been humbled. She testified her career has basically been ruined because she failed to read the mortgage papers prior to signing them." Santiago told the Commission that her entire legal career has been spent in the area of criminal law; she "knows little about real estate law" (p. 5).
The Commission stressed that most of the evidence in this case was stipulated to and most of the facts in the case undisputed. Because Santiago did not really contest the Judicial Inquiry Board's allegations of violations, the Commission saw its task as merely determining what sanction to impose. The Commission noted (p. 8), "Respondent engaged in consistent hedging and her candor was reasonably in question." On the other hand, the Commission noted (p. 9), Santiago's "actions and omissions were not related to her official duties. Further, there is no indication in the record of any prejudicial impact to any litigant appearing before respondent. * * * There is no contest in the record that the actions of respondent are not likely to recur and the financing situation, as well as the question of residential qualification, appear to have been resolved."
The key passage in the Order may be this one, at p. 7:
At a minimum, respondent knew or should have known of her residency problems when she faced a challenge to her candidacy for circuit judge of the Sixth Judicial Subcircuit in the 2012 election. Subsequent to that, however, the record shows that in her disclosures, in order to secure an FHA loan, she designated the Spaulding property residence as "primary." Respondent argued that her actions could be characterized as careless. Given, however, the highlighting of her residence problems in the electoral challenge to her candidacy, one could reasonably characterize her activities as reckless. In effect, respondent got trapped. Her response to her situation only made her situation worse. She could be charged with reasonable notice of her problem due to the electoral challenge; however, the documents that she executed and the representations she made to AEM aggravated rather than corrected the situation. Respondent argued that ultimately no harm was done to AEM as all obligations were paid in full as the house was sold for more than the original obligation. We note, however, that her actions, taken in order to qualify for an FHA loan as opposed to a regular residential loan and the subsequent financing resulted in financial benefit to her. We also note the corrective actions were taken only subsequent to exposure of her residency problems by the media.Now, for the non-lawyers, and even for the lawyers-who-are-not-judges who may happen on this post, let me suggest to you that it may not go so well for you if you misrepresent your residency plans in a mortgage application and the mortgage company finds out about it. Or if the county finds out that you're claiming a homeowner's exemption on property where you don't reside. But Judge Santiago has been spared; she has the opportunity now to resume her judicial career and restore her reputation.