Lawmakers Gone Wild
Four-star dining! Luxury cars! European getaways! An exclusive investigation reveals how Illinois politicians are living large on their campaigns’ dime.
(page 1 of 3)
*These are actors, not real politicians
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.)
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.
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.
Photography: Taylor Castle