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Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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Roughly four years after the mysterious question was revealed — what happened to the $500,000? — it remains publicly unanswered, most certainly forever.

The Illinois Supreme Court recently closed the door to serious inquiries, finding that lots of money was spent questionably but outlining no effective method for an effective accounting.

So Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino — whose job it is to act as a watchdog over state spending — is pretty much off the hook when it comes to explaining over $500,000 in campaign spending.

Are there no records to check? They were conveniently destroyed.

Can he be questioned about

the expenditures? Plans for deposing Mautino were canceled after he indicated he would “assert his Fifth Amendment privilege” to remain silent.

So the matter is basically all over but the shouting.

Naturally, Mautino is pleased. He was quoted as saying that he is “look(ing) forward to finalizing the matter.”

It’s hard to imagine that this controversy would end any other way but in stalemate. That’s because the state’s campaign-spending laws — like its ethics laws — are designed not to work.

From Mautino’s perspective, they didn’t work to perfection in this dispute.

Here’s a brief synopsis of this really long story.

After Mautino’s name popped up in connection with the auditor general’s job, the Edgar County Watchdogs group took a look at his campaign spending.

They discovered that Mautino spent roughly $200,000 between 1999 and 2015 at a Spring Valley service station owned by a friend and that he wrote another roughly $300,000 in checks for cash to a local bank.

A Streator resident — Dave Cooke — filed a complaint about the vagueness of the expenditures with the Illinois State Board of Elections. The inquiry almost ended right there, when the board informed Cooke that he would have to conduct an investigation into Mautino himself.

A former teacher, Cooke was in no position to do so. But a volunteer lawyer for the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center stepped forward. Years of litigation ensued.

At one point, the elections board imposed a $5,000 fine on Mautino’s campaign committee for its reporting shortfalls.

But the fine was meaningless because the committee had been dissolved, leaving no entity to pay it.

Since then, the case has been bouncing back and forth between the toothless election board, which wanted to drop it, and a state appeals court that wouldn’t let it drop it.

Recently, the Illinois Supreme Court reviewed the case and concluded the gas-station expenditures were improper because Mautino’s committee “made expenditures for vehicles it neither owned nor leased.”

As for the checks written to the bank, the court said a campaign committee is not allowed to make expenditures in excess of the “fair market value” for whatever is being bought but that Cooke couldn’t show that the committee’s expenditures were inflated.

That’s probably because there were no records showing what the money went toward. Mautino vaguely claimed it was for “travel.”

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the elections board for further pointless review by its eight members, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

The committee is divided evenly so each party can block disciplinary action against a member of the opposite party. Mautino is a Democrat, so GOP members were enthused about looking further into the matter while Mautino’s fellow Democrats were not.

There’s lots of other curious details to this story. But readers get the idea of how government in Illinois is designed to work.

It’s great for insider politicians like Mautino, but not so much for the people who pay for it.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-393-8251.

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