From last Wednesday's News-Gazette column ...
Tom Pliura, the rural Ellsworth lawyer and physician who ran for the state Senate last month claiming that Illinois’ political system was broken and headed in the wrong direction, may not be any better than the incumbents he spent months criticizing.
Pliura, who lost to state Rep. Chapin Rose of Mahomet in the 51st Senate District Republican primary election, spent the last two months of the campaign taking advantage of a loophole in Illinois’ campaign-disclosure laws to avoid the immediate disclosure of $74,239 in loans from allies and relatives.
It’s the same loophole that pols such as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gov. Pat Quinn, House Speaker Michael Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross have been accused of using to avoid Illinois’ generally lax campaign-disclosure laws.
What Pliura did is perfectly legal. But it clearly was done to circumvent the intent of 2009 campaign-disclosure reforms, according to David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
State disclosure laws now require that any donation over $1,000 has to be reported to the State Board of Elections within five days.
But Pliura avoided the requirement by accepting 79 separate loans of between $550 and $999 between Jan. 30 and March 19, the day before the primary. Among the transactions were 29 separate $900 loans from his wife, Pam, made between Jan. 30 and March 15.
“What this candidate did is outrageous,” Morrison said. “It’s clearly an effort to evade disclosure, and it’s exactly the reason why candidates should not be allowed to play these games.”
Pliura, whom Rose defeated 59 percent to 41 percent, did not return repeated phone calls.
Morrison said such campaign-disclosure avoidance may be designed to keep from tipping off election foes about finances, but it also can keep voters from knowing about the source of campaign funds.
Candidates “do it to avoid telling not only where they’re getting their money but how much money they have. They’re trying to fly under the radar, to pretend that ‘There’s nothing to see here,’ that ‘There’s no serious campaign effort going on here. You can just go to sleep and we’ll sneak up on you somehow,’’’ Morrison said. “They’re being clever. In this case, it didn’t work, but there will come a day when a candidate will secretly raise gobs of money and surprise everyone.”
Under Illinois’ old campaign-disclosure rules, if a candidate got multiple checks where each was under the disclosure threshold but the aggregate was over the threshold, then the candidate had to disclose all of the checks, Morrison said.
After the Legislature approved so-called campaign-disclosure reforms that went into effect Jan. 1, 2011, the State Board of Elections tried to enforce the aggregation rule.
But the Joint Commission on Administrative Rules, made up of legislators, “shot them down and said, ‘You can’t do that,’” Morrison said.
His group, which is based in Chicago, continues to demand real reforms to Illinois’ weak disclosure rules.
“In this situation where it’s the candidate and his relatives who were clearly structuring their contributions to avoid disclosure, this is exactly why we need a rule,” Morrison said.
In a report the Campaign for Political Reform wrote last year, it argued that the change to the aggregation rule allowed candidates in municipal elections to hide nearly $500,000 in campaign contributions until after the elections.
The delay, it said, “denied the public of the chance to see money from large contributors in virtual real time. More importantly, voters were denied the opportunity to evaluate these large donors before casting their ballots.”
Pliura’s campaign-disclosure report, filed Sunday, showed he received $111,288 between Jan. 1 and March 31. That included about $37,000 in contributions but almost twice as much in loans from 14 different sources, among them his wife, his mother, a Marion surgical center, and Connie Nord, a Bloomington supporter who is chairwoman of McLean County Republican Women.
Pliura spent nearly $135,000 on his campaign in the three-month period, including more than $50,000 on television commercials, almost $23,000 on mailings, more than $14,000 on signs and more than $8,000 on radio advertising.
Rose got $103,392 between Jan. 1 and March 31. That included almost $57,000 from individuals and $46,300 from political action committees.
He spent $262,756 during the period, $190,000 of it with Hodas and Associates, a Springfield political consulting firm that, among other things, produced his television spots and bought his TV time.