Campaign funds easily abused
Bad things happen when foxes guard the hen house.
It's another week in Illinois with another crooked politician going down for the count.
Most people won't recognize the name. Cook County Commissioner William Beavers, a longtime city alderman and Chicago political power-broker, has no statewide reputation.
But he's a big deal in the big city, so it was big news when a federal jury took just two hours before convicting him of a series of tax-related charges related to his personal use of campaign funds.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Beavers used large sums of money from his campaign accounts to finance six-figure gambling binges as well as to buy additional credits to fatten his public pension. Beavers claimed he had done nothing wrong because the money he used came in the form of loans. Of course, there were no loan documents or much else to back up Beavers' claim.
So it wasn't much of a surprise that, caught red-handed, Beavers went down.
The Beavers case is not much different than that of former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi. They improperly spent more than $700,000 in campaign funds to support a lavish lifestyle.
These campaign funds obviously represent a terrible temptation for weak-willed politicos, but there's another, bigger factor that plays a crucial role in the misuse of campaign money.
For the most part, there is no oversight of how campaign money is used. To get caught misusing campaign money usually requires coming under law enforcement scrutiny for some other reason.
In Jackson's case, he was linked to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's effort to sell President Obama's former Illinois Senate seat. Federal investigators examining Jackson's role in the Blagojevich scheme struck gold when they took an in-depth examination of Jackson's campaign funds.
Similarly, Beavers, too, fell under federal investigation, although it's not clear for what, that led to examination of his campaign funds.
Why there is so little oversight? The reason is no mystery.
The legislators who control the funds also control the legislation that guides their oversight. Most of them don't want to be bothered with an audit; others don't want to get caught spending campaign money on personal items.
Melanie Sloan, the executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C., recently complained that it's "nearly impossible to root out" corruption because "there are no random audits" of congressional campaign funds.
Spending can be falsely described in campaign reports, but no one will be the wiser unless auditors take a deeper look. In the case of the Jacksons, their spending was misreported for years before it was uncovered.
Why doesn't the Federal Election Commission conduct audits, as it once did? The rules were changed to prohibit random audits unless a specific complaint is filed. But on what grounds can a complaint be filed without a deeper examination to reveal a problem?
In Illinois, the rules are even more generous than those governing Congress.
Politicians like Beavers are allowed to spend campaign money on anything they want. But they have to pay federal income tax on the money they take.
In 2005, Beavers paid $27,000 in federal tax on money that he diverted to his personal use. He must not have liked doing so because in future years he didn't pay taxes he owed on the campaign money he took.
Once again, no one discovered the problem until he came under federal scrutiny years later.
It's time to get a handle on the use of campaign funds at the state and congressional levels. Unless laws are changed to allow deeper scrutiny of how this money is spent, abusers won't have much concern about getting caught.