Illinois politicians come under campaign finance spotlight

Illinois politics have long had a reputation as a kind of cigar-smoke-filled old boys club of yesteryear. But the notion that the state is permissive about the big issues of today – namely campaign finance – would seem to be incorrect. Recently, two major Illinois politicians – a congressman and a state auditor general -have both become targets of questioning over campaign spending. 

Often, the scrutiny of an oversight organization is only the start of a long, arduous process, and the cases of Congressman Bobby Ruth and Auditor General Frank Mautino stand as examples of how to attract oversight attention by filing financial disclosure report that are vague or incomplete. 

FEC questions spending of representative
A letter arrived on the doorstep of House Democrat Bobby Rush in mid-May. It bore the emblem of the Federal Election Commission. According to the Chicago Tribune, the letter contained a number of questions for Rush about FEC reporting that showed thousands of dollars spent on vague things like "services rendered" and "campaign visibility." 

"Vague or incomplete disclosure reports will always grab the attention of FEC auditors."

Needless to say, neither of those categories are overly descriptive – at least not to the degree demanded by campaign finance compliance law. The FEC wants more specific details and gave Rush until June 20 to respond to its requests.

A congressman since 1993, Rush reportedly won his March primary election without breaking a sweat. But unspecific payments for services rendered to Rush family members – including $50,000 to his wife in 2015 and $13,000 to his brother in 2016 – have the FEC looking for a more robust explanation.

Compensating family members for campaign work is legal – so long as they are qualified for the work and paid a reasonable market standard. But payments as large as those distributed by Rush make watchdog groups and the FEC do a double take. Nepotism is too bold a claim, but Rush will have to sort out his FEC reports to assuage concerns. 

"These are the type of FEC reporting errors typically seen on the reports filed by a first-time candidate, not a member who has been in Congress for more than 20 years," Brett Kappel, a Washington lawyer, told the Tribune after reviewing the FEC letter. 

And, Rush isn't the only Illinois politician feeling the heat of campaign finance questioning.

The FEC has already threatened an audit for Congressman Rush's vague campaign finance reports. The FEC has already threatened an audit for Congressman Rush's vague campaign finance reports.

Illinois auditor general ordered to explain spending
A state's auditor general is its spending watchdog. The position is, in theory, a scion of accountability. But what happens when the watchdog is being watched? That's the case in Springfield, Illinois, where the Illinois State Board of Elections has demanded an explanation from state Auditor General Frank Mautino about nearly $500,000 in questionable expenditures. 

More specifically, Fox Illinois affiliate WRSP reported the board requested an accounting of more than $200,000 spent by a campaign fund at a gas station while Mautino was still a state representative (a position he held for 24 years). Reports document the expenditures as gasoline and vehicle repairs between 2005 and 2015, but the oversight board is not accepting that explanation. 

The News-Gazette reported a political ally of Mautino's owns the gas station, which surely doesn't help the auditor general's case – nor does the Board of Elections interest in approximately $300,000 in payments for campaign services to a bank that does not claim campaign services as one of their service offerings. 

The board set July 1 as the deadline for the Democrat from Spring Valley, Illinois, to explain his expenditures, and a Mautino spokesman said in a statement that the campaign reports will be amended in time to resolve any questions. 

But, as is usually the case in official queries like these, the potential for campaign finance violations is fodder for political rivals to use in their pursuit of a successful election bid or advancing their own issue platform. 

"The auditor general for the state of Illinois: He's in charge of being the fiscal watchdog for the state, and he's got to be forthright about his own accounting practices, and if he can't do so in that manner, then what faith and confidence can any taxpayer have in his ability to be auditor general for the state of Illinois," Rep. Grant Wehrli, a Republican, said to WRSP. 

It certainly doesn't look good when a spending watchdog is hit with an investigatory spotlight for questionable financial reporting. The Illinois auditor general's office, an institution with a proud reputation, is now under a cloud of suspicion and doubt that will be difficult to shake. People don't soon forget when candidates or support groups are accused of violating election law. 

To put it simply, there's little room for error in today's campaign finance environment. Everything from campaign finance compliance to campaign software must be precise and error-free. The cost of not doing so is too high to overcome.