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Shaw Thoughts

I’ve been communicating with many of you for nearly 40 years as a newspaper reporter, a political correspondent on TV, a radio commentator and now as President & CEO of the Better Government Association, an anti-corruption civic watchdog organization.

I know what good and bad government look like, who’s using your hard-earned tax dollars wisely (and who’s not), and what we can rightfully demand of our elected and appointed officials to reform government that is broken at virtually every level. I know where the bodies are buried, how to ask the tough questions and how to hold errant public officials’ feet to the fire.

This is where I’ll be posting pieces and producing videos that help you understand what’s going on in the governments around you, what we think about it and what should be done to make it better. After all, that’s who we are: The Better Government Association.

But we can’t do it alone. I can talk the talk, but you have to walk the walk with me and rest of us at the BGA. I hope this blog can inform, motivate and direct our campaign for better government. It’s our right. And their responsibility.

 

 

Pols Feeding at the Campaign Trough

Dec 16, 2012

One of our latest investigations can be summed up in a word: Oink.

The Better Government Association teamed up with Chicago magazine to shine a light on how some prominent local politicians are spending campaign money.

Bottom line: Campaign funds are treated like personal piggy banks, with spending remarkably similar to hogs at a trough.

Much of the money is raised from special interest groups, and it’s supposed to be used for political purposes, not so our elected leaders can live it up and supplement their already-generous public-sector salaries.

But Illinois’ campaign finance laws are fuzzy about what defines a "political" purpose. The loopholes are large, and the enforcement is lax, so many pols are living high on the hog with impunity.

Lawmakers Spending
(from left) Joe Berrios, Richard Mell, Michael J. Madigan, and Jesse White

One is Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, whose property valuations contribute to your rising tax bills and who, as chairman of the county’s Democratic Party, helps slate the candidates who almost always win.

In the context of our investigation, Berrios is a Hungry Hog who spent nearly $200,000 in campaign cash on meals in the past five years, dining at some of Chicago’s swankiest eateries, including Gibsons and Mart Anthony’s Italian Restaurant.

He lists the meals as "meetings" on his required disclosure form, but please — 58 "meetings" at Mart Anthony alone?

The Sultan of Sporting Events is Illinois House Speaker and state Democratic chairman Michael Madigan, whose political funds spent more than $900,000 over five years on tickets and other expenses at White Sox, Cubs, Bulls and Notre Dame games.

Many of those tickets were given away, but really, is that what campaign cash is for?

Chicago Ald. Dick Mell, father-in-law of imprisoned ex-governor Rod Blagojevich, is the Rent Rajah. He owns the building that houses his ward operation, and pays himself rent out of his campaign funds — $230,000 over five years.

And why has the Car Caliph, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, spent more than $77,000 from his political fund on vehicle expenses?

Some might look at all of this and say, "better campaign cash than tax dollars," but that misses the point.

First, it appears to circumvent the few clear rules in place to regulate campaign funds. Second, many of the abusers also make the rules, so they should be following them. Third, if pols are using campaign cash to enhance their lifestyles they should be paying income taxes on it like the rest of us. They don’t.

And finally, this profligate spending reinforces the idea that public service is really about private benefit, which may encourage the illegal activity that puts so many of our politicians in jail.

So how do we clean it up? By clarifying the definition of what does and doesn’t qualify as a "political" expense, by requiring politicians to keep more detailed records of their "political" spending, and by giving state election officials enough resources to investigate expenditures and impose serious fines and other penalties on the violators.

These potential abuses may not be the most serious ethical lapses on the corruption spectrum.

But like bacon on a griddle, they’re something that should definitely make taxpayers sizzle.

Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association. Contact him at ashaw@bettergov.org or (312) 386-9097.

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