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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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What happened to the $500,000 in the campaign account of former state Rep. Frank Mautino?

No one is ever going to find out all the dirty details. But a state appeals court ruled last week that undetermined portions of the funds were obviously “used for personal purposes,” not that that’s any surprise.

Based on its findings, the 4th District Appellate Court sent the case back — for the second time — to the Illinois State Board of Elections to consider what, if any, fines it should impose for the violations.

Of course, any fines imposed will be a sham. That’s because they would be directed to Mautino’s now nonexistent campaign committee. It has been dissolved, and its records — conveniently — destroyed.

For those who don’t recall, Mautino, a Spring Valley Democrat, left the Illinois House in 2016 to become the state’s auditor general.

Yes, that’s right. The man who made a shambles of campaign spending rules is the same guy who oversees how state executive agencies and departments spend public dollars.

That may seem farcical to some. But in Illinois, where the foxes share the same quarters as the hens, it’s business as usual.

Mautino has over the past three years repeatedly refused to address questions about the mysterious expenditure of $500,000. That’s because federal prosecutors were looking into the malfeasance. But it seems clear by now that the criminal investigation went nowhere.

So has the elections board probe. In fact, officials there initially refused to look into the matter, telling citizen complainant David Cooke, a Streator resident, that he’d have to conduct the inquiry himself and report his findings to them.

Cooke, ultimately, secured the services of a volunteer lawyer, Jeffrey Schwab of the Liberty Justice Center, to assist him.

The political melodrama began after it became clear that Mautino, a member of Speaker Michael Madigan’s House leadership team, was Madigan’s choice to become the state’s new auditor general, replacing the retiring William Holland.

That prompted the Edgar County Watchdogs to examine Mautino’s campaign records, revealing $500,000 in questionable spending between 1999 and 2015.

Records showed that $200,000 went to a Spring Valley gas station owned by one of Mautino political associates, allegedly for gasoline and vehicle repairs.

The other $300,000 went to a local bank in the form of checks written for cash.

The appellate court noted that Mautino’s campaign committee neither owned nor leased any vehicles.

It concluded the $200,000 was used to pay for “repairs to Mautino’s four personal vehicles” and for gasoline used to fill the tanks of those whose names were “on a list” Mautino gave to the service station operator.

Mautino said the $300,000 in checks for cash were used to pay his travel expenses.

In his defense, Mautino lawyers claimed the money was used for campaign- and government-related expenses. But there are no records to substantiate that assertion.

The state elections board is divided along partisan lines — four members from each party. The divide assures neither party can hold a member of the other party responsible for mishandling campaign cash.

In this case, the elections board has twice tried to dump the case by imposing the un-collectable $5,000 fine and calling it a day.

On both occasions, Cooke’s lawyer appealed and won orders from the appellate court directing the board to reconvene and follow the law.

“This evidence was clearly sufficient to establish by a preponderance of the evidence the (Mautino) committee made expenditures to a third party for gas and repairs of personal vehicles in violation of (state law). The board’s decision to the contrary is clearly erroneous,” wrote appellate Justice James Knecht.

With respect to the $300,000 in checks written to the bank, Knecht wrote that “by making expenditures to withdraw cash used for personal purposes, the committee made expenditures in excess of the fair market value for what it received in exchange, which was nothing. The board’s decision to the contrary is clearly erroneous.”

The issue now goes back to the board to determine if it will impose another round of fines on the nonexistent Mautino campaign committee.

If all this activity seems like toothless oversight, it is. That’s by design.

Illinois politicians don’t want anybody telling them what they can do with campaign funds. Further, they certainly don’t want to pay any fines for violating the vague rules that govern expenditures.

It’s a great system for our elected officials, like Mautino. It doesn’t work as well for citizens concerned about legislators who use their positions to feather their financial nests.

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