A fake investigation

A fake investigation

The situation is even worse than people think.

Woody Allen said it best in "Bananas," one of his comic movie farces, when he erupted in rage to denounce the courtroom proceedings.

"I object, your honor! This trial is a travesty. It's a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham," Allen's character shouted.

He wasn't talking about government in the state of Illinois, but he could have been. Specifically, he could been perfectly describing the Illinois State Board of Election's toothless, almost pointless probe of years of suspicious campaign spending by Frank Mautino, a longtime Illinois House member who is now the state's auditor general.

Mautino currently is under federal investigation in connection with about $500,000 in odd campaign spending. That includes about $200,000 in gasoline and vehicle repairs over 11 years at a Spring Valley gas station owned by political associate. The other $300,000 involves money spent at a bank for political services the bank doesn't provide.

It's ironic, but somehow fitting, that the man legislators elected to conduct audits to make sure the state spends taxpayer dollars wisely is under investigation for misspending money in his campaign.

But that's not all. It gets worse.

The elections board has been conducting an investigation of sorts into Mautino's spending. This week, a hearing officer recommended that Mautino's campaign committee be fined for "willfully" violating an order to provide information the hearing officer demanded.

The elections board will consider whether to approve the unspecified fine at a meeting scheduled for next week.

But the issue apparently is moot. The fine isn't really a fine because the elections board is, by design of the Legislature, "a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham." It represents the illusion of oversight rather than oversight itself, a mirage to gull citizens into a false sense of security while our elected officials, if they wish, run wild.

For starters, any fines approved by the election board wouldn't be paid by Mautino personally, but by his campaign committee. Further, Mautino's campaign committee won't pay any fines because it was closed Dec. 31, 2015, and no longer exists.

Of course, the board wasn't exactly enthusiastic about the investigation from the start. When news of the suspicious spending broke, it took no action because state law bars it from doing so unless a complaint is filed.

When Streator resident David Cooke filed a complaint, the board said it still wouldn't conduct an investigation. Board members told Cooke that if, at his own expense, he hired a lawyer to conduct an investigation of Mautino spending, it would listen to what the lawyer had to say.

Ultimately, Cooke retained a volunteer of the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center to look into the matter.

Here's what has happened.

Mautino refused to testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. A Mautino campaign official testified that she had destroyed most of the spending records because they were more than two years old. Further, Mautino representatives said it was impossible to answer specific questions because campaign workers simply purchased gasoline when they needed it and never kept track of mileage.

That response is essentially a non-response, far short of any kind of explanation of where $500,000 in campaign funds went.

While disappointing, the bizarre nature of this inquiry doesn't come as much of a surprise, unless, of course, people didn't expect campaign spending oversight to be this bad. But it is, and for a very good reason — our elected officials don't want any stinkin' oversight. Many of them view their campaign funds as personal piggybanks.

Mautino still has to deal with federal investigators. They won't be as easy to roll as the disinterested and mostly powerless inquisitors at the elections board.

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