Even when things change, they don’t change.
Way back in 1998, members of the Legislature passed a bill designed to eliminate a backdoor method for payoffs to officeholders at all levels of government.
They passed legislation barring the long-standing practice of allowing public officials to withdraw money from their campaign funds and use it for themselves.
Prior to the legislation, the law permitted such withdrawals, as long as the beneficiaries paid income tax on this unique source of revenue.
When longtime Senate President Phil Rock, an Oak Park Democrat, used his campaign funds as a source of extra income, he’d announce his action with a press release. That was government transparency — Illinois style.
Other officeholders would, no doubt, tap campaign funds for personal expenses and not tell anyone.
It was an embarrassing but common practice, one that Barack Obama, a state legislator before he went on to bigger and better things, characterized as “legalized bribery.”
It was certainly legal. Showing bribery is another matter, one that would require proving a quid pro quo. Needless to say, it was an embarrassment, even by the standards of a state long considered synonymous with sleazy political practices because it allowed donors, more big ones than small ones, to give money indirectly to public officials.
Is there a better way to win friends and influence public policy?
Sleazy practices involving money and politics die hard. So when legislators decided to bar the practice in mid-1998, they grandfathered incumbents into the old way of doing business.
They decreed that whatever money they had in their campaign funds as of June 30, 1998, would be theirs to keep if they wished.
No one will be surprised to learn that many of them wished to do exactly that.
Mike Brown of the Chicago Sun-Times recently took a deep dive into the campaign fund numbers and reported that “dozens of former elected officials” decided to keep the campaign cash for themselves.
Those officials were Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, good-government types and typical Chicago-style ward heelers.
One revealing detail in Brown’s story is that “nearly all waited to (take the money) until after they left office and were beyond the reach of voters.”
Collectively, the Sun-Times reports that they have “pocketed a total of more than $5 million” since the law took effect.
For the most part, those who took their campaign funds for themselves defined it as innocent behavior.
“I followed the law,” said former state Sen. Jim DeLeo. He kept $271,681.
Former state Rep. Skip Saviano, a Republican from Elmwood Park, said he used $219,093 to pay college tuition costs. Now the mayor of Elmwood Park, Saviano credited himself for deciding to be “upfront and take the money.”
Former Chicago state Rep. Ralph Capparelli, who is 95, took $583,357. Informed that he is the largest beneficiary of the campaign cash grab, Capparelli replied, “That’s pretty good. I didn’t know.”Prominent former politicians who took the cash include former state Sen. James Clayborne Jr. of Belleville ($42,204), former state Sen. Emil Jones of Chicago ($210,613), former Sen. Christine Radogno of Lemont ($36,157), former state Sen. James “Pate” Philip of Wood Dale ($274,964), former Lt. Gov. Corrine Wood ($72,227) and former state Comptroller Loleta Didrickson ($310,411).
There weren’t many area politicians on Brown’s list.
Among them were former state Sen. Robert Madigan of Lincoln ($264,519), former state Rep. Duane Nolan of Blue Mound ($7,953), former state Rep. Charles Hartke of Teutopolis ($9,100) and former state Rep. J. Philip Novak of Bradley ($99,120).
The most humorous example was provided by former Chicago City Clerk Jim Laski. He took $130,977 from his campaign fund, explaining that he needed the money to support himself and his family after he was released from prison on a corruption conviction.