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Shaw: Fuzzy campaign finance laws aid shady spending

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Updated: February 1, 2013 6:15AM



One of the Better Government Association’s latest investigations can be summed up in a word: Oink.

The BGA teamed 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.

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 — who has come under fire for hiring family members in the assessor’s office and getting relatives jobs in other county offices — is a Hungry Hog. He spent nearly $200,000 in campaign cash on meals during the past five years, dining at some of Chicago’s swankiest eateries, including Gibsons and Mart Anthony’s Italian Restaurant.

Berrios 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 is that really what campaign cash is for?

Chicago Ald. Dick Mell (33rd), father-in-law of imprisoned ex-governor Rod Blagojevich, is the Rent Rajah. He owns the building that houses his ward office and pays himself rent out of his campaign funds — $230,000 over five years.

And why has 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 laws, so they should be following them. Third, if politicians are using campaign cash to enhance their lifestyles, they should be paying income tax on the money 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 spectrum of political corruption.

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

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



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