State’s Top Fiscal Watchdog Misspent Nearly $250K In Campaign Funds, High Court Finds
Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino should not have spent nearly a quarter million dollars in campaign funds for fuel and repairs to personal vehicles when he was a state lawmaker, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
But Mautino did not violate campaign finance law by spending campaign funds in round, whole numbers — what the local government accountability nonprofit whose investigation sparked the suit against Mautino called a common red flag in conducting audits. The high court found there was no evidence Mautino’s campaign committee paid more than fair market value for goods and services bought with campaign dollars.
Despite the half-win, the court’s decision was not the complete exoneration Mautino wanted, and it extends the cloud of uncertainty the auditor general has operated under for more than five years.However, the auditor general expressed satisfaction with the ruling through a spokesman Thursday.
“We are pleased with the decision today by the Illinois Supreme Court and look forward to finalizing the matter," Mautino said.
Mautino spent 24 years serving as a Democrat in the Illinois House before his colleagues — all but 10 Republicans — voted to make him the state’s top watchdog for financial compliance in the fall of 2015.
But not even three weeks into his term in early 2016, a group called Edgar County Watchdogs published an in-depth look at Mautino’s campaign spending records, finding tens of thousands of dollars spent atHappy's Super Service Station in Mautino’s hometown of Spring Valley.
The group’s article and a subsequent citizen complaint filed to the State Board of Elections alleging campaign finance violations by Mautino’s committee caught the eye of federal investigators, and a few months later, Mautino confirmed he was cooperating in the probe.
While nothing has come of the federal inquiry, Mautino’s case on the state level has bounced around for years between the state’s election board, various courts and now the Illinois Supreme Court. With the high court’s decision that Mautino did, in fact, violate campaign finance laws by spending on fuel and repairs for personal cars, the issue goes back to the Board of Elections.
However, the agency in charge of overseeing elections and campaign compliance can’t do much in the way of punishment; the Board of Elections doesn’t have the power to impose fines on a campaign committee that has already shut down, and Mautino shuttered his fund two days before he officially began the auditor job in late 2015.
The board also doesn’t have the power to find personal liability for a campaign finance violation.
“They can only impose a fine on the committee,” Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich said Thursday. “The committee no longer exists. So that’s where we’re at.”
The bipartisan eight-member board deadlocked on the question of whether Mautino’s committee broke the law by spending money on personal vehicles, but the court on Thursday said the panel’s de facto decision — via deadlock — to not find the committee violated campaign spending regulations was “clearly erroneous.”
“By its plain language, [Illinois’ campaign finance law] does not permit committees to make expenditures for gas and repairs to vehicles that are not owned or leased by the committee,” Justice Rita German wrote for the five-member majority; Justices P. Scott Neville and Robert Carter did not participate. “For such vehicles, a committee may only make expenditures for actual mileage reimbursement.”
However, lawyers for Mautino contend a 2012 letter from the Board of Elections gave the committee cover. The committee said it asked the agency for clarity on fuel spending regulations and a Board of Elections staff member replied in the letter that “expenditures need to be listed by vendor instead of listing the individual or committee who was reimbursed for the payment of the expenditures.”
During oral arguments in March, Mautino’s attorney, Adam Vaught, told the court that campaigns save money by paying for gas outright instead of paying out mileage reimbursements. It’s cheaper to buy a tank of gas for $30 before a 100-mile campaign-related trip, for example, than to reimburse the driver $56 for 100 miles traveled (at a 56-cent-per-mile reimbursement rate) — even if a small portion of that $30 tank of gas goes to personal travel.
"Leftover pizza could become a violation," Vaught told justices, warning that upholding the appellate court’s ruling against Mautino would make following campaign finance laws tedious and at times impossible in the face of practicality.
"And it does sound absurd, but this is a political issue, and so things become very trivial if you can say that the other side violated the law,” Vaught said.
But the justices thought otherwise.
The court ordered the board to take up the question of fuel and repair spending again, but in the absence of an active campaign committee to penalize, the most the panel could do is find whether the committee’s violation was “willful,” Dietrich said.
If that determination is made, it could reignite investigations of wrongdoing after the federal probe stalled, but the future is unclear.
The earliest the board would likely take up the matter is August, Dietrich said, as it must wait on an official order from the court.
The board already issued an un-collectible $5,000 fine to Mautino’s defunct committee in 2017 for insufficient record-keeping early on in the saga, when itrefused to file supplemental reports and Mautino declined to testify before the Board of Elections after federal investigators began their probe.
The committee destroyed its campaign finance records after it was shut down; state law allows for the destruction of records after two years.
This story has been updated with a comment from Mautino and to clarify the mission and involvment of the Edgar County Watchdogs.
Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS