Columns

Eye On Illinois: No real penalty for Mautino, no real reform from lawmakers

“That is so Illinois.”

State Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, uttered those words in June when urging his colleagues to reject Senate Bill 825, but they echoed anew Tuesday when the Illinois State Board of Elections considered a complaint against the campaign committee of Frank Mautino.

Batinick can connect the dots, but in case it requires more explanation, here goes: Mautino, a Democrat, represented Spring Valley in the Illinois House for almost 25 years, from 1991 to near the end of 2015. His term started shortly after the untimely death of his father, Richard Mautino, who’d held the seat since 1975.

The younger Mautino resigned his General Assembly post upon his appointment as Auditor General, a 10-year term he officially began Jan. 1, 2016. He was qualified – House deputy majority leader since 2011, 18 years on the Legislative Audit Commission with a dozen as co-chairman – but all partisan appointments require some skepticism.

Red flags sprang with reports about Mautino soliciting donations for his legislative campaign fund after starting the transition to auditor general. An explanation of tying up loose ends satisfied most. But more irregularities in the way Mautino reported campaign expenditures over the years surfaced: allocations like $250,000 in campaign spending on gas and car repairs, nearly $80,000 on meals and $17,000 on trash bins.

Republicans hammered him. Once frequently available to media, Mautino doggedly refused to answer questions. He stonewalled former constituents, stymied reporters and wouldn’t produce the reports the ISBE demanded. Absent those documents, the ISBE couldn’t find Mautino’s campaign guilty of wrongdoing, so it fined the campaign $5,000 for failure to comply. He’ll have to pay only if he (implausibly) wants to revive the committee.

This May, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled Mautino’s campaign broke state election law by paying for gas and repairs on personal vehicles with campaign money instead of filing mileage reimbursements. It remanded to the ISBE to rule on whether the violation was willing or incidental. That brings us to Tuesday and a 7-0 vote dismissing the complaint.

How does this connect to SB 825? The bill amends the Election Code. Among many other provisions, it states political committees can use contributions to pay for gas and car repairs on personal vehicles, “provided the expenditure relates to the use of the vehicle for primarily campaign purposes or the performance of governmental duties.”

So that thing Mautino did? It won’t be illegal going forward. Rather than clarifying rules, lawmakers effectively erased them. For all the talk about ethics reform, failing to produce expense reports in the acceptable form still isn’t a fineable offense on its own with additional compounding penalties for refusal to pay. Mautino remains unscathed while loopholes are getting larger.

That is so Illinois.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.