Tom Kacich: Campaign law loophole allows for concealment
I thought I was onto something last week when, looking through state campaign disclosure reports, I saw that Attorney General Lisa Madigan had reported only $22,500 in itemized contributions of $1,000 or more since March 31.
Since Madigan had reported $831,190 in campaign donations in the first quarter of this year, clearly that $22,500 figure meant that she had dialed down her fundraising. And maybe that meant she wasn't running for the Democratic nomination for governor after all.
I'm glad I didn't write that story.
In fact, what Madigan is doing is taking advantage of another loophole in Illinois' Swiss cheese campaign disclosure law, and she's not alone.
Gov. Pat Quinn is doing it, too, and possibly other candidates.
Quinn, after reporting more than $565,000 in contributions in the first quarter, has disclosed just $10,600 since.
Just because Illinois' campaign disclosure rules require political committees to report any contribution of $1,000 or more "within five business days after receipt of the contribution," that rule doesn't mean what it says.
That's because, on the next page of rules, it says that "a contribution is considered received on the date ... a monetary contribution was deposited in a bank, financial institution or other repository of funds for the committee."
So if you wrote a $5,000 check to Lisa Madigan's campaign on April 8, for example, that five-business-day requirement doesn't mean that it had to be disclosed by April 13. It might not be disclosed until around the quarterly deadline of June 30.
In Illinois, there's the spirit of the campaign disclosure law, and then there's the loophole of it.
What campaign committees do is collect dozens of fat checks, let them sit for weeks or months, then deposit them in a bank on one day and report them within five business days.
That, in fact, is what Citizens for Lisa Madigan did in the first quarter of the year. It disclosed 198 separate contributions of $1,000 or more all at once, on April 5. The checks had been deposited on March 29.
Ditto Taxpayers for Quinn. The governor's campaign fund reported 112 contributions of $1,000 or more, including $20,000 from the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, on April 2. But the trial lawyers reported that the donation was made on March 20.
Madigan's campaign, for its part, said it reports contributions in one big batch so that it can thoroughly vet all donations and return any checks that create potential ethical problems.
And lawmakers, at the time a new campaign disclosure law was being discussed in 2009, said they wanted to avoid problems with checks that were sent to post office boxes but may have go uncollected for days or weeks.
"Legislators were upset about it — they felt there was the potential for 'gotcha moments' — a check in a post office box, and they would get fined for not checking a post office box," said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "I don't know how often that actually happened. I think they might have been inflating the problem a bit."
So the law was written to allow campaign committees to sit on contributions for long periods, although they also could disclose them quickly. A law that supposedly was written to foster public disclosure and benefit voters ends up favoring the pols.
"That means that the committee gets to determine when the public finds out about when they received money," Morrison said. "In the context of an election, it means that a committee can have the check and know the money is in hand, but not tell voters about it until the polls are closed. That's a very dangerous precedent.
"At the time, the folks in the Legislature said, 'No, no, no. People won't actually play that game. Trust us on this.' I don't know that that's true. I think we are seeing some gamesmanship."
The pols rigged the game to benefit them. Madigan and Quinn don't disclose until later, while relative unknowns like Republican Bruce Rauner and Democrat Bill Daley disclose right away.
Rauner has filed almost weekly reports on the $1,000-plus contributions he has received. On Monday, for example, he reported 13 separate contributions totaling $56,100. Also Monday, Daley disclosed 16 separate contributions totalling $167,500, including $100,000 from himself.
"The disclosure becomes part of their campaign tactic. It's something they can control, and they can decide when to do it," Morrison said. "Bruce Rauner is trying to show that there are lots of people giving to him. It's in his interest to disclose early, to show how serious he is and how much money he's bringing in beyond his own money. He has tactical, political reasons to disclose early, whereas other candidates may have a tactical reason not to."
Madigan and Quinn, said Morrison, "both may want to hide the extent of their fundraising from each other."
The two longtime statewide officeholders "don't want to tell each other how much they've raised or what their target is. They hide the money until right up before (the quarterly) deadline and then start filing the (reports) with all the money they've taken in."
It doesn't seem right to refer to the Illinois laws as campaign disclosure; what we have is a form of campaign concealment.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.