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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.”
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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.”
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?
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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.