Lawmakers Gone Wild

Four-star dining! Luxury cars! European getaways! An exclusive investigation reveals how Illinois politicians are living large on their campaigns’ dime.

 

Above: *These are actors, not real politicians Photo: Taylor Castle

Push open the heavy door to Mart Anthony’s Italian Restaurant and Steakhouse, on the corner of Hubbard and Racine in the West Loop, and you feel you’ve stepped back in time. This is the kind of cozy place where the tablecloths are white linen, the walls are wood paneled, and, according to the restaurant’s website, the customers “are well-fed and have their cocktail of choice at hand.”

On any given week, chances are good that one of those customers—perhaps washing down the $32 steak Vesuvio with a $75 Napa cabernet—will be Joe Berrios. In the first nine months of 2012, Berrios ate lunch or dinner at Mart Anthony’s 58 times, ringing up a tab of $8,747. How do we know this? Because Berrios—who is not only the Cook County assessor (salary: $125,000) but also the county’s Democratic Party chairman and the committeeman for the 31st Ward on the Northwest Side—used political campaign funds to pay the bills.

Those Mart Anthony’s meals were actually “meetings,” according to his quarterly mandatory disclosure filings with the State of Illinois. Turns out Berrios, 60, has held “meetings” at lots of restaurants since the beginning of 2007: 989 of them, totaling $186,080. That’s right: On average, the veteran pol dined out on the campaign dime at least every other workday at $188 a pop.

Given that Berrios’s full-time campaign office is just two blocks from the County Building, where he works, it’s puzzling that he must hold so many meetings at gourmet restaurants. Equally puzzling is that not a single meal he charged to his ward committeeman fund—the account that’s supposed to be used for ward-related politics—was eaten inside his ward.

(Through a spokesperson, Berrios—who recently told reporters that the county’s ethics rules barring nepotism in hiring don’t apply to him—declined to be interviewed for this article. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking details of who attended the meetings and what they were about, Berrios’s office first claimed that he doesn’t keep a calendar. It later sent one xeroxed page of one month in a datebook with four appointments penciled in.)

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Using campaign funds to live high on the hog is a time-honored tradition among certain Illinois politicians. How else are they supposed to afford frequent fine dining and other luxuries on a public servant’s salary?

It’s also supposed to be verboten. Under both state and federal law, elected officeholders and political candidates can spend campaign money only on things with a campaign- or government-related purpose. They’re not allowed to use the funds to enrich their lives. But by stretching the definition of “campaign-related” like taffy, politicians “can still parlay [campaign contributions] into a pretty good life,” says Ronald Michaelson, a campaign finance expert who was the executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections from 1976 to 2003.

To learn how widespread such shenanigans are in Illinois, Chicago and the nonprofit Better Government Association recently analyzed campaign disclosure records from January 1, 2007, through September 30, 2012 (the most recent available as of presstime) for thousands of political campaign committees. The politicians those committees fund include all state senators and representatives, most suburban mayors, all Cook County commissioners and township committeemen, all Chicago aldermen and ward committeemen, and other major county and state elected officials.

While no serious red flags popped up for most of these politicians, a significant minority appear to treat their campaign coffers as giant slush funds for big spending on luxuries—Lexus sedans, spa services, overseas jaunts—that mere mortals at a similar salary level couldn’t dream of affording and that arguably have little to do with getting elected. Some, including Country Club Hills mayor Dwight Welch, state senator Terry Link, and Berrios himself, appear to live virtually all-expenses-paid lifestyles. (In interviews, both Link and Welch defended their spending as directly related to and necessary for their political activities.)

Most galling of all, such spending goes on largely unnoticed and mostly unquestioned. “We have a culture here [in Illinois] of you take what you can get,” says David Morrison, the deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “I don’t know of any other states where this would be an issue.”

 

In the spring of 1993, Robert LeFlore Jr., 62, a Democratic state representative from the West Side, died in office after a long illness. The costs of his funeral ($4,400) and his burial plot ($3,200) were paid not by his family but by his still-active campaign fund. Recalls Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield and a campaign finance specialist: “The joke at the time was that if people were told that the money they were giving politicians was being used to bury them, they’d be much more willing to contribute to their campaigns.”

The bigger joke was the fact that using campaign funds to pay for your own funeral—could there be a more patently nonelection-related expense?—wasn’t illegal. Before 1998, Illinois imposed no restrictions on how political candidates and officeholders could spend campaign money they raised. None. “It was the Wild West,” says Michaelson. “Fur coats for the wife, country club dues, new cars, college tuition”—using political war chests to cover such expenses was all perfectly legit.

Thus, when he was governor from 1977 to 1991, James Thompson, a Republican, was able to use thousands of dollars in campaign funds to pay his family’s babysitters. Jane Byrne, the Democratic mayor of Chicago from 1979 to 1983, used her campaign fund to buy her daughter a new $14,000 Mustang.

Democratic state senator John D’Arco Jr. took $45,000 to pay legal bills during his 1991 federal trial on bribe-taking and influence-peddling charges. A year later, Democratic alderman Fred Roti withdrew triple that amount for his own legal defense.

Back then, reformers were focused not so much on how candidates spent their contributions but on who donated the money in the first place. “It’s the cash coming in, the income on the front end, that offers the greatest risk of corruption,” says Morrison.

When it came to spending reform, the federal government was way ahead of Illinois. In 1979, Congress passed a law banning federal candidates and legislators from using campaign money for personal expenses. (That statute applies to federal lawmakers such as Jesse Jackson Jr., the ex-congressman who at presstime was being investigated for allegedly using campaign funds to decorate a lavish home and buy a $40,000 Rolex.)

Many states passed similar laws. But in Illinois, the tipping point wasn’t until around 1995, when a series of scandals, including a massive Medicaid fraud, erupted. The FBI and state police busted staffers from Governor Jim Edgar’s office and officials from the state’s public aid office for accepting gifts and bribes from Management Services of Illinois, a major campaign contributor that overbilled the state by about $12 million.

The MSI scandal underscored the rampant corruption in Illinois’s government and stoked voter wrath. Even Michael Madigan, the old-school Speaker of the House, had to acknowledge that the tide had turned. “Conditions have reached the point where action should be taken to eliminate the gravy train in Springfield,” he told reporters in 1997.

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The next year, the state’s four legislative leaders finally formed a special bipartisan task force—which included a young freshman senator from Chicago named Barack Obama—to draw up a campaign finance reform bill. Asking legislators to pass a law cutting their own goodies was a mighty tall order. “Once you get the perks, you want to keep the perks,” says Bob Stern, the former president of the Center for Governmental Studies at UCLA, who helped write California’s landmark campaign reform act in 1974.

In the end, the task force was able to get rank-and-file lawmakers to pass the bill only by inserting a grandfather clause allowing Illinois politicians to keep all the campaign money they collected before June 30, 1998, and spend it however they like, as long as they pay income taxes on any personal expenses.

On the plus side, the law did spell out nearly a dozen specific expenditures that are forbidden. Buying a house, for example. Paying off a mortgage. Covering school tuition, country club dues, or dry cleaning bills.

Unfortunately, the law was “a crap sandwich” with “more holes in it than St. Andrews’s golf course,” Jim Howard, the former executive director of the campaign reform group Illinois Common Cause, told reporters after it passed. For instance, the law allows the following exception to the tuition ban: “governmental or political purposes directly related to a candidate’s or public official’s duties and responsibilities.” Stretch the definition of “political purposes” far enough, apparently, and you can tap your campaign coffers to pay your tuition at Harvard University plus flights to and from Boston. Howard Kenner did just that in 2002, to the tune of $15,500, while he was a South Side state representative.

There’s also a ban on using campaign dollars to pay travel expenses “unless the travel is necessary for fulfillment of political, governmental, or public policy duties, activities, or purposes.” One can only imagine what political necessities drove Michelle Harris, the 8th Ward alderman, to travel to Turkey last year on her campaign’s dime. Or what required Richard Mell, the 33rd Ward alderman and father-in-law of former governor Rod Blagojevich, to pay $6,617 in campaign funds for a three-night stay at the opulent Bellagio in Las Vegas with four of his precinct captain buddies in 2009. (In 2008, Mell took the same group on a $4,651 jaunt to Aruba.)

And then there’s this sweeping statement toward the end of the statute: “Nothing in this section prohibits the expenditure of funds of a political committee controlled by an officeholder or candidate to defray the customary and reasonable expenses of an officeholder in connection with the performance of governmental and public service functions.” As a practical matter, says Morrison, such vague wording means that what does or doesn’t count as a campaign expense is pretty much up to each candidate: “It’s essentially the honor system.”

Even if characterizing lavish personal spending as campaign spending is deemed legal in Illinois, “it looks bad,” Redfield points out. It casts public officials as arrogant, out-of-touch profiteers who are less interested in their constituents than in feathering their own nests—an especially poor image with so many Illinoisans struggling in this still-weak economy.

 

The campaign headquarters of Dwight Welch, the mayor of southwest suburban Country Club Hills, can be difficult to find. On the outskirts of the town’s business district, it is practically indistinguishable from the surrounding ranch-style residences dotting a quiet neighborhood with broad lawns. That’s because the office is in his house’s three-car garage.

Welch, 63, who is white, has been mayor of this mostly African American community since 1987. He rehabbed his garage/office in 2008, expanding it and putting in a new kitchen, bathroom, and party area. To do this, he withdrew $40,000 in campaign funds, the Illinois Board of Elections calculated at the time. When the Sun-Times questioned him about the project—and about the red flags raised by the election board—Welch pleaded ignorance and dismissed the whole thing as “no harm, no foul.” (Welch says that he repaid his campaign.)

With his spanking-new office built, Welch again dipped into his campaign kitty for tens of thousands of dollars to add furniture, office supplies, a furnace, a security alarm, and a sound system. He withdrew thousands more to cover property insurance and his home’s monthly utility bills, including cable TV, records show. Last but not least, he used his campaign account to pay himself rent for use of the garage/office: $28,750 from February 2009 to May 2012.

Lest you assume that Welch was driven to such extremes by pitifully low compensation, you should know that Country Club Hills—population 16,000—pays him $145,000 a year, one of the highest mayoral salaries in the Chicago suburbs. He also enjoys a $32,000-a-year expense account funded by taxpayers. The mayor even gets his wheels for free: Country Club Hills provides a town-owned undercover police vehicle for his use. Perhaps it’s not to Welch’s taste, however, because until recently he also leased a $600-a-month Volkswagen SUV—billed, natch, to his campaign fund. (He recently traded in the Volkswagen for an Acura SUV.)

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Welch is unapologetic about his campaign spending. “You raise and spend money for elections—duh,” he says. “That’s what I do. I’m not ashamed of it. I try to follow all the rules.” As for his garage/office? “We have parties there all year round. People enjoy it. . . . I’m doing the will of the people. It’s not like I’m gaining anything.”

Because it’s perfectly legal to use campaign funds to rent campaign offices, many Illinois politicians, like Welch, choose to locate the offices inside property that they (or a family member) already own. Consider Alderman Mell, 74, he of the Vegas getaway. Mell bought a single-story brick storefront on the Northwest Side for $210,000 in 1996, according to public records; he has owned it free and clear since 2004. From January 2008 to August 2012, he used campaign money to pay himself $231,000 in rent on the place and is currently collecting around $4,450 per month. Mell says that there is nothing illegal about it: “It’s convenient, and it’s in the ward.”

Vehicles are another major area of questionable campaign spending. The Chicago/BGA analysis found that more than 100 lawmakers and candidates have used nearly $1.3 million in campaign funds to lease or buy cars, often high-end models, over the past five years. For example, Patrick O’Connor, the 40th Ward alderman and the mayor’s floor leader, paid $7,500 in campaign cash to McGrath Lexus in 2011 for a four-door sedan; he has since billed the campaign $1,100 every month in lease payments.

But that pales in comparison with Jesse White, Illinois’s secretary of state. Records show that White has spent more than $77,000 in campaign money on cars since the start of 2007, including two 2007 GMC Yukons, one of which he keeps in Chicago and one in Springfield. This despite the fact that White, like Welch, has a car provided for his use. (How does he get from Chicago to Springfield, you might ask? According to his spokesperson, sometimes he takes the state plane.)

Mind you, all this is legal as long as the cars in question are used for campaign or official purposes. So is using campaign funds to cover car insurance, repairs, fuel, and parking costs. We found many examples of politicians dipping into campaign coffers still deeper to add satellite radio, buy vehicle stickers, and pay parking tickets.

There are literally hundreds of other examples of dubious campaign spending, many almost amusingly penny ante. Angelo “Skip” Saviano, a ten-term Republican state representative from Elmwood Park who lost his reelection bid in November, dropped $210 at Sosa Cigars, an upscale lounge in Disney World. O’Connor spent $500 at Cinzia, a fancy spa in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Holiday cards, flowers, wedding gifts—they’re all commonly found in candidates’ spending reports. “They’ll tell you it’s all ‘constituent services,’ ” Morrison says.

The numbers climb from there. Did state representative David Harris, a Republican from Arlington Heights, really need a $6,152 Segway electric scooter for campaign work? (Yes, he says: “I wanted to draw attention to myself and, second, meet all the voters I could.”) Is every dollar of the $912,782 that Michael Madigan has spent on Cubs ($456,027), White Sox ($305,116), Bulls ($143,155), and Notre Dame football ($8,484) tickets since the start of 2007 really part of his election effort? (Says Madigan’s spokesperson, “He sees [the tickets] as a way to encourage people to be active in political campaigns,” adding that when Madigan uses the tickets himself, he always reimburses his campaign.)

Pretty soon you reach the Spinal Tap level: a campaign spending knob that goes beyond 10 to 11, just like Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier. Terry Link, the veteran state senator from Waukegan and chairman of the Lake County Democrats, is a master of the form. Campaign-paid car? Check. A dazzling variety of things charged to his campaign, down to a $221 People magazine subscription? Check. Link even reported that he used campaign coffers to pay for dry cleaning, in violation of one of the law’s few clear prohibitions. (When asked to explain that one, Link called back and said that the bills were to clean not his own clothes but items collected for a coat drive. “I didn’t want to give people dirty coats,” he said.)

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As you’ll recall, using campaign funds to purchase a home is forbidden. Link, 65, says he used his own money to buy a $32,000 two-bedroom “manufactured house” years ago. He keeps it at the mobile home park Woodland Acres in Springfield and stays there when the state legislature is in session, he says. During those times, he bills his campaign fund the $280 lot lease fee that Woodland Acres charges.

This might not be an issue if it weren’t for the fact that Link also collects a taxpayer-provided $111 per diem, according to the Illinois comptroller’s records (each member of the General Assembly gets that amount to cover meals and hotel rooms while the legislature is in session). “He’s just so blatant,” says one legislator who requested that his name not be used. “He’s getting a windfall and not claiming it as a personal benefit.”

Responds Link: “I’m doing nothing that’s illegal. If I had anything to hide, I wouldn’t report it.”

 

Campaign finance observers say that few politicians start out trying to game the system. In their first runs for office, they tend to spend their hard-earned cash on staples such as consultants, pollsters, bumper stickers, and advertising.

Fast-forward several terms. Now sitting pretty in safe districts with token opposition or none at all, they no longer need to use their campaign war chests, flush with cash from big-money special interests, to appeal to voters. Still, they campaign full-time, year-round, despite the actual election being years away. This campaigning begets more spending: office overhead, fundraising, staff meetings, social events, and so on. That’s on top of the traditional get-out-the-vote expenses that hit right before each election.

Here’s where some can fall into a trap. Regularly wined and dined and fawned over by donors and lobbyists, they start to indulge in luxuries not necessarily related to their elections. “You convince yourself it’s all part of the job, and it’s not a lot of money, and that sort of thing,” says Redfield. “It’s very corrosive.”

Pretty soon some start charging practically everything to their campaigns, including everyday necessities, like groceries, that average folks have to pay for themselves. Michaelson says the everyday expenses can be more insidious than the big-ticket ones. “Buying a second house in Florida—that just stands out like a sore thumb,” he says. “It’s the daily stuff, the more routine stuff, that can all add up to a lot of money.”

Most of the money that flows into politicians’ campaign coffers comes not from ordinary citizens but from special interest groups. Three out of every four contributions, in fact. And that’s what particularly troubles Redfield. “If a candidate uses campaign funds to supplement his lifestyle, you’re creating a conflict of interest,” he says. “You depend on your contributors to keep contributing to you if you want to maintain your lifestyle. Does that give your contributors leverage? Does it bleed over to how you deal with public policy?”

“People should be outraged,” says Melanie Sloan, the executive director of the D.C.-based political watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “If you don’t want to live on a lawmaker’s salary,” she adds, “don’t be a lawmaker.”

Campaign donors aren’t raising a stink. According to Stern, they couldn’t care less if the money they give a politician goes toward personal expenses. “They just care,” he says, “that the money has influence.”

 

It’s the commissioners of the Illinois State Board of Elections—four Democrats and four Republicans appointed by the governor—who have the power to investigate possible campaign spending violations and impose fines.

But by statute, the board lacks the power to audit campaign disclosure forms to stop violations in progress. (By contrast, the boards in Wisconsin and Minnesota, among others, do have such power.) The board can ask candidates to clarify expenses that seem fishy, but it cannot, for the most part, challenge their legitimacy. In other words, it can’t question whether a politician’s $395 tab at Gibsons on a Valentine’s Day three years before his next election is really a “political meeting” or a campaign-paid date night. It can investigate on its own but usually only does so if a “verified complaint” is received.

And the fines it can impose are basically wrist slaps: They top out at $500, plus the value of each improper expenditure over $500. “I think there’s a lot of areas where the board would like more statutory authority,” says former board director Michaelson. “But where does that come from? The state legislature. The men and women who are going to be directly affected by it. The status quo. They’re not eager to pass reforms.”

By many accounts, the board commissioners are too accommodating, emphasizing negotiation over prosecution and reluctant to side against a politician in their own party. “The last thing they want to be doing is policing the expenditures of the people who pass their budgets,” says Redfield—especially given that the board’s budget has shrunk from $118 million in 2007 to $39 million last year even as its workload has grown.

And when the board does issue fines, it rarely bothers to collect. A 2011 Daily Herald investigation found that of the $21.5 million in fines issued by the board to candidates and political organizations since 1999, only $1.2 million had been paid. “What [the commissioners] really need is more backbone,” says Morrison.

Rupert Borgsmiller, the executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections, responds that the agency does its best with the resources it has. The board prefers to work with politicians to make sure they comply with the law, not to play gotcha. Borgsmiller also points to the language of the statute: “That’s what we have to work with. It is what it is.”

In fairness, politicians’ expenses can be difficult to track, given the dizzyingly large number of small expenditures, often spread out over months or years, listed in separate reporting periods and sometimes filed by multiple political committees. Think about it: In Illinois there are some 40,000 elected officials in about 6,000 units of government, according to the elections board (though many down-ballot elected officers don’t have campaign accounts). Plus, there are hundreds more political action committees that aren’t affiliated with elected candidates but have to be monitored.

To further complicate matters, politicians aren’t required to provide any corroborating receipts or paperwork for their campaign spending. They can and do list vague descriptions, such as “meetings,” that may obscure the real purchases. In March 2011, for example, Ray Suarez, the Democratic alderman of the 31st Ward, reported that his campaign spent $3,760 in “miscellaneous expenditures” for the purpose of—wait for it—“miscellaneous expenses.”

“You can fudge these things all the time,” says one prominent Chicago election lawyer who requested anonymity. “We don’t have robust enough disclosure requirements to really expose all of the skeletons in the closet.”

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Because state legislators have lacked the will to criminalize campaign spending abuses, it has mostly fallen to federal authorities to prosecute possible violators. But such indictments are extremely rare, and only a handful of Illinois politicians have actually been convicted. (The most recent: George Ryan, the former Republican governor, in 2003, for making personal use of $80,000 in campaign funds and failing to pay income taxes on the money.)

As for prosecutions, the latest significant one came against William Beavers, the longtime South Side alderman turned Cook County commissioner. Last February he was indicted on federal charges that he didn’t pay taxes on more than $225,000 he took from his campaign funds and county expense account to gamble and sweeten his city pension. (Beavers has called the charges “horseshit.”)

In practice, the IRS and federal prosecutors tend to look into questionable campaign spending only during the course of a separate public corruption investigation. “Unless it’s very flagrant or repeated, it wouldn’t be worth basing a case on,” says Byram Tichenor, a former IRS special agent who headed Chicago’s criminal investigative division from 2005 to 2007. “The government has to show clear evidence of fraud.”

That’s not so easy, says Joel Levin, a former assistant U.S. attorney who helped prosecute Ryan, in part because most politicians have campaign treasurers, accountants, and lawyers—often trusted friends or family members—who can insulate them from questions about possible misconduct. Recall how, during her unsuccessful mayoral bid in 2011, Carol Moseley Braun blamed her former campaign treasurer and longtime friend after her campaign failed to report how it spent $315,000 in campaign funds?

 

The way to fix systemic campaign spending abuse, of course, is better laws. One good start might be for Illinois to offer public financing to political candidates who agree to limit their spending during each race, as 24 other states already do. In one of them—Minnesota—the maximum cost of a statehouse race is $34,300. By contrast, in the 2010 elections (the latest year for which data are available), the average candidate for the Illinois House spent $90,000; some spent in the hundreds of thousands.

At the very least, say campaign finance experts we interviewed, Illinois legislators should impose more and clearer restrictions on use of campaign cash. Take restaurant meals: Stern suggests that candidates be allowed to spend only what the state allots for its governmental per diems. He further proposes that candidates be allowed to expense campaign meals only during a defined election cycle, not anytime they please.

What’s more, the Illinois Board of Elections should have the power to audit campaign committees and to impose mandatory fines with real bite. Redfield even suggests stripping the board of enforcement powers altogether and giving them to the state inspector general, a more credible and independent arbiter. Or creating a body such as the Government Accountability Board in Wisconsin, which consists of six former judges who are nominated by a panel of state appellate court judges and so are almost completely removed from politics.

Barring such reforms, Sloan doesn’t see anything curbing politicians’ bad behavior except “a couple prosecutions . . . [that create] a scandal.”

But do convictions actually deter politicians? I asked Levin.

“That’s the $64,000 question,” he answered.

Or to put it another way: That’s the question whose value—using Joe Berrios math—would equal the cost of 340 restaurant meals charged to his campaign funds.

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