Jim Dey: Campaign donor money pays for more than ads

Jim Dey: Campaign donor money pays for more than ads

Yankees catcher Yogi Berra wasn't talking about sleazy government in Illinois when he famously said, "You can observe a lot by watching."

But he might as well have been — his prophecy is being borne out in spades as questions about how one politician spent his campaign money morphed into a question about how another politician spent his campaign money and then how a lot of them spent their campaign money.

These evolving inquiries have set the stage for civil inquiries, a possible criminal investigation and a chorus of questionable explanations from those whose hands have not been caught in the cookie jar, but something even better — their campaign coffers.

So far, the star of this potentially big show is the state's new auditor general, Frank Mautino, a longtime legislator from Spring Valley and a one-time top lieutenant to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.

What is an auditor general? He's the guy who's charged with overseeing spending in the state's executive branch of government. He's supposed to make sure the money is handled in the right way and goes to the right places.

The office, which has uncovered more than its share of financial boondoggles, is indispensible to ensuring sound financial practices. That's why it's so deliciously ironic that in our manifestly corrupt state, the auditor general is under scrutiny for monkey business involving his campaign funds.

When the story broke about six weeks ago, Mautino insisted that everything was above board and that he would put to rest any concerns about possible mishandling of more than $600,000 in campaign funds.

Since then, however, he's shut up and lawyered up.

"On all the questions, we really don't have anything more to share," said Ryan Keith, Mautino's publicist.

On the lawyer front, Mautino recently showed up at a closed-door hearing at the Illinois State Board of Elections accompanied by Anthony Jacobs, a lawyer from Hinshaw & Culbertson. The board is conducting a preliminary inquiry on Mautino's handling of campaign funds that will resume in early April.

But even more important are news reports that Mautino has retained another Hinshaw & Culbertson lawyer, managing partner William Roberts.

A heavy hitter by anyone's measure, Roberts is a former Sangamon County state's attorney, a former U.S. attorney, a former official in the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush, former inspector general of the Illinois General Assembly and former legal counsel to Gov. Jim Edgar.

Among the clients he's represented in criminal investigations is Speaker Madigan. Now it's looking like he's got Mautino, even though there's been no official confirmation that investigators are conducting an inquiry.

Mautino first hit the news when the Edgar County Watchdogs combed over his campaign spending and reported that he spent $213,000 between March 2005 and December 2015 on fuel and repairs at a hometown service station owned by one of his political supporters.

Since then, questions have been raised about a variety of other campaign expenditures, including $33,000 in payments to a family-owned restaurant and $23,800 in payments to a campaign treasurer, ostensibly for meetings payments.

One of the biggest questions mark has been raised about nearly $300,000 in payments to a bank for election services banks don't provide.

While legislative Democrats are supporting Mautino, Republicans who smell blood are demanding explanations.

Republican state Sen. Jim Oberweis, who sits on the legislative audit commission to which Mautino reports, said Mautino's reticence suggests he has no legitimate explanation for the spending.

"This has gone on for quite a long time. That would lead you to speculate that where there's this much smoke there's fire," Oberweis said.

Illinois campaign disclosure laws are vaguely written, to the point that legislators can do many things with the money that would be considered off-limits by ordinary people.

Theoretically, they are barred from spending campaign money on anything but expenses related to government or political work.

But the rules are written to be evaded. Legislators, for instance, are prohibited from using campaign money to buy cars. So they use campaign money to lease them.

Even better from a legislator's standpoint is that while their reports are submitted to the board of elections they are not scrutinized by the board. Everyone is considered above board unless someone files a complaint. Then the board conducts a review to see if the complaint is justified. Fines can result. Often problems can be corrected simply by submitting more complete paperwork.

State Sen. Sam McCann, a Republican from Plainview, is running for re-election amid complaints about inappropriate mileage reimbursements from his campaign fund.

Meeting in private on March 14, the elections board ruled the complaint filed against McCann is justified. A follow-up public hearing has yet to be scheduled.

If Mautino's and McCann's campaign spending is questionable, what about other members of the Illinois House and Senate?

Questionable use of campaign funds apparently is widespread, according to a recent Illinois Times article written by Bruce Rushton that has tongues wagging all over Springfield and beyond.

"Fancy cars. Luxury hotels. Trips to the tropics. Money paid to 'unknown.' Meals bought in bars without kitchens and money sent to an address that doesn't exist. All this and more appears on campaign disclosure reports filed by Illinois legislators," Rushton reported in a story headlined "Lifestyles of the Rich and Elected."

Democratic state Sen. Kimberly Lightford has used nearly $4,000 in campaign funds to pay for two stays at the Ritz-Carlton in the Cayman Islands.

State Rep. Louis Arroyo paid himself more than $17,000 for vague Election Day expenses since 2008. In 2011, Arroyo paid himself $1,000 for "reviewing contested petitions."

Rushton reports that state Sen. John Mulroe, a Chicago Democrat, used campaign funds to purchase thousands of dollars in chips at a Des Plaines casino and justified it on the grounds that they were "guest chips."

Rushton's report of questionable spending goes on and on — trips to Turkey, $1,000-plus meals and an $1,100 donation to a Florida fishing tournament.

State Rep. Arthur Turner II, also a Chicago Democrat, paid $2,000 for lodging, half of which went to a mortgage company. The house on which the mortgage is held is owned by Turner's father, former state Rep. Arthur Turner.

There are income tax implications if legislators convert campaign money to personal use. There are criminal implications if payments are made as part of a kickback scheme.

But unless and until someone official takes a hard look at state legislators' campaign funds, they're just another generous perk that comes with public service.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion

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