Leftovers and loose change

Mautino case lands at state Supreme Court

Leftover pizza could land a politician in trouble, according to a lawyer for Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino, who is asking the Illinois Supreme Court to overrule an appellate court that's upheld allegations of improper campaign spending while Mautino was a legislator.

The amount of money involved isn't clear. Between 1999 and 2015, when legislative colleagues elected him auditor general, the former Democratic House member controlled a campaign fund that kept a charge account at a Spring Valley service station, where campaign workers and volunteers obtained gas on the campaign's account, which also paid for repairs on vehicles owned by Mautino. More than $216,000 was paid over a period of 16 years. In addition, Mautino wrote checks to himself from his campaign's bank account, often in round figures such as $150 or $200. Over the years, more than $159,000 flowed out of the account via checks written by Mautino and the campaign treasurer.

Receipts are lacking. Mautino's lawyers say that the money was spent to perform political or governmental work, as the law allows, but receipts, if they existed at all, were destroyed when Mautino left the legislature and shut down the campaign fund.

"There's an absence of evidence," Adam Vaught, Mautino's lawyer, told the Supreme Court during March 10 oral arguments.

"Counsel, whose fault was it that there was a lack of evidence?" Justice David Overstreet asked.

"It's kind of all over the place, really," Vaught replied.

Vaught told the court that the committee had destroyed records after checking with the election board, which issued a $5,000 fine for insufficient recordkeeping after the defunct committee refused to file supplemental reports and Mautino refused to testify before the election board. The refusals came after the U.S. attorney's office launched a criminal investigation in 2016. "They (the campaign committee) didn't know what records would be of interest, they didn't want to supplement something that could prove problematic," Vaught told the court. He said that Mautino refused to testify because he didn't want to waive his Fifth Amendment privilege. No charges have been filed since Mautino acknowledged the federal investigation nearly five years ago. Cash from the bank typically was used for meals and other expenses when Mautino traveled to Chicago, his lawyer says.

"It would have been a lot easier if we had the records – it would show there's nothing here," Vaught told the court during March 10 oral arguments.

Mautino broke the law no matter what, according to David Cook, a Streator man who is suing the election board and the auditor general's defunct campaign committee. The former legislator never returned leftover money to his campaign after withdrawing cash that his lawyers say was used for travel and other expenses, Jeffrey Schwab, Cook's lawyer, noted during oral arguments; if Mautino ran out of campaign cash and paid expenses out of his own pocket, he should have reported the expenditures as campaign contributions, but there was no evidence of that. It's impossible that some gas purchased for campaign workers wasn't used for personal travel, argued Schwab, an attorney with the Liberty Justice Center, a Chicago legal services group known for supporting conservative causes.

The Fourth Appellate Court twice has ruled in Cook's favor. The first time, the court decided that the election board had erred in not holding a hearing to determine whether Mautino, already fined for bad recordkeeping, had misspent money. After the board, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, held a hearing and declined, in a 4-4 vote, to find violations of state campaign law, Cook again appealed, with the appellate court in 2019 determining that violations of campaign law had been proven and sending the case back to the election board to determine how much Mautino should be fined.

In arguing that the appellate court got it wrong, Vaught told the court that politicians who pick up dinner tabs aren't required to report them as campaign contributions even if the purpose was political. He also said campaigns can save money by paying for gas instead of paying mileage – cheaper to buy a tank of gas for $30, even if a gallon goes for personal travel, than to pay $55 for 100 miles traveled.

If the appellate court's ruling holds, Vaught argued, campaign committees will have a difficult time following election law: Politicians who let volunteers take home untouched food from fundraisers would be breaking the law.

"Leftover pizza could become a violation," Vaught told justices. "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."

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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