Jim Dey: Mautino under fire
When Frank Mautino, the state's new auditor general, walked into the Illinois House chamber last month to watch Gov. Bruce Rauner deliver his State of the State address, his former Democratic legislative colleagues cheered lavishly.
The beleaguered auditor general surely appreciated the gesture — he needs all the support he can get.
That's because Mautino, whose job it is to make sure public funds are spent properly, is being buffeted by questions about how he spent campaign funds while a House member from Spring Valley.
At least two government agencies are looking deeper into the matter, and one local legislator suggests Mautino can't wait too long before he explains himself.
"You only have so much time to answer questions before the public starts to draw its own conclusions," said state Sen. Jason Barickman, a Bloomington Republican who served with Mautino on the audit commission before Mautino became the auditor general in January.
Barickman said the audit commission, a bipartisan panel that reviews the auditor general's work, has written Mautino to inquire formally about his campaign spending practices.
The Illinois State Board of Elections also is seeking what it calls a "clarification" about $250,000 in payments since 1999 to a Spring Valley bank. The board wants to know what the money was spent on because, as a spokesman said, "they clearly are not expenditures to the bank."
Mautino's problems began when the Edgar County Watchdogs decided to look at his campaign spending reports and found some curious payments.
Most suspect were reported expenditures of $213,000 between March 2005 and December 2015 on fuel and repairs for his campaign vehicle.
They were made at a single business — Happy's Super Service Station — owned by Spring Valley Alderman Fred West, a friend and campaign supporter.
Former state Sen. Susan Garrett, now the chairwoman of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said the expenditures "raise eyebrows."
"Given the fact that the office of auditor general requires the highest ethical standards ... it's extremely important Mr. Mautino respond to questions regarding how he handled his campaign expenditures," she said.
Some aren't waiting for an explanation.
Adam Andrzejewski, chairman of government spending watchdog group OpenTheBooks.com, said the expenditures, combined with Mautino's silence, render him unfit to be auditor general.
"The people deserve an auditor general with integrity. In Illinois, this integrity must be proven. It's a standard Mautino cannot meet and therefore he must resign or face removal proceedings," he said.
Andrzejewski contended that Mautino has "been silent for a month in the face of this egregious fact pattern exposed by watchdogs, because any response triggers more campaign finance questions."
Mautino has not been completely silent. He and his media adviser issued a vague statement asserting that Mautino "served his north-central district with distinction in the Illinois House for 24 years" and had "fully disclosed and reported all spending by the campaign in compliance with Illinois campaign finance and disclosure laws."
But his statement purposely ignored the elephants in the room.
Why did he make $250,000 in payments for campaign expenses to a bank? How could he spend $213,000 on gasoline and vehicle repairs during a 10-year period?
Other media outlets — Illinois Times in Springfield and the Ottawa Times — examined other expenditures, including $17,175 to Waste Management for a Dumpster over a 14-year period.
"Over 17 years, Mautino's Dumpster rental bill worked out to $102 a month on average, but much higher in recent years," The Times reported.
Two questions are obvious. Why were there annual expenses for a Dumpster when House members run every two years and do not maintain full-time campaign offices?
Further, how could a campaign office generate so much waste? The Times did some comparison shopping.
"Let's assume that Mautino's office used a two-yard Dumpster for 14 years. He would have spent $8,568 with Illinois Valley and $11,760 with Waste Management. Both are far less than the $17,175 he ultimately spent," The Times reported.
The newspaper quoted a Waste Management representative as saying a two-yard Dumpster is typically used by restaurants and retail stores and that a campaign office would generate less waste than those two enterprises.
So the questions keep mounting. What was Mautino spending his money on? Why so much?
From the outside, it has all the earmarks of a kickback scheme, something that would be sure to draw the attention of the U.S. attorney's office in Springfield.
That's why critics say that Mautino needs to provide an innocent explanation — if there is an innocent explanation.
Sen. Barickman said he is reluctant to "cast too wide a net of suspicion" but that Mautino can't remain silent.
"There's been a lot of attention," he said.
Widely considered amiable and fair, Mautino was one of Speaker Michael Madigan's legislative lieutenants in the House. He made his interest in becoming auditor general known soon after former Auditor General William Holland announced last summer that he planned to step down at the end of the year.
The irony is that the auditor general's job is to make certain that state executive departments spend taxpayer money wisely and ferret out corruption or mishandling of public funds.
Apropos to Illinois' long history of government corruption, the state's auditor general, just two months into a 10-year term, is under suspicion of doing exactly what he's charged with catching other people doing.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 217-351-5369.