Watchdog being watched

Watchdog being watched

The state's spending watchdog is operating under a financial cloud.

A toothless state oversight board is demanding an explanation from state Auditor General Frank Mautino about nearly $500,000 in questionable expenditures from Mautino's campaign fund.

But people ought not get too excited about the answers Mautino has promised to provide. There's so much smoke here that it's hard to imagine there's not a fire lurking beneath, a conflagration that ought to draw the attention of federal prosecutors.

Mautino's aware of that risk. That's why he's retained prominent Springfield defense lawyer Bill Roberts to represent him.

But the request from the Illinois State Board of Elections undoubtedly complicates Mautino's situation vis a vis expenditures from his campaign fund.

The board, specifically, is requesting an accounting of $213,000 in expenditures for gasoline and vehicle repairs between 2005 and 2015 at a service station owned by a political friend.

The board also wants Mautino, a former Democratic legislator from Spring Valley, to explain roughly $300,000 in payments for campaign services to a bank that does not provide campaign services.

A Mautino public relations spokesman put a positive spin on the board's action, asserting that it "narrowed the scope of its inquiry into Frank Mautino's campaign spending."

"Frank will be working with his team to amend his campaign reports by July 1 in an attempt to resolve these questions," said spokesman Ryan Keith.

Despite news accounts, the Mautino affair has mostly escaped much public attention for weeks now. But it represents another potentially big scandal in state politics — that of the state's leading financial watchdog coming under investigation for questionable spending of campaign funds.

Further, it threatens to pull back the curtain not just on Mautino's campaign spending practices but those of other members of the Illinois House and Senate.

Although Illinois law doesn't provide much oversight of campaign spending, it does provide the illusion of oversight. The rules are written so vaguely that just about anything goes short of withdrawing money from campaign funds and putting it directly in one's pockets.

Given the frightfully negative appearance — a spending watchdog under investigation for financial improprieties — Mautino ought to resign his office and deal with his campaign spending problem on a private basis.

But he's a pol from the old school, a veteran legislator from a political family and a former member of House Speaker Michael Madigan's leadership team. Indeed, Madigan played a big role in making Mautino, a poor choice to start with, auditor general.

Now the auditor general's office is under a cloud.

There's not much in state government in which people can take pride. But the auditor general's office has long had a solid reputation as an agency that fearlessly oversees executive branch spending practices, identifies problems and recommends solutions.

It'll be hard to maintain that reputation going forward unless one of two unlikely events happens:

— Mautino provides solid explanations for his bizarre spending practices.

— He steps down.

Absent those possibilities, it's looking like another rough ride down a scandal-ridden political pathway for the people of Illinois.

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