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.
|(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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 386-9097.