Champaign News-Gazette, Champaign, Illinois
Jim Dey: Feds giving auditor taste of his own medicine
Sun, 05/22/2016 - 7:00am | Jim Dey
What the facts made appear obvious has now been officially confirmed.
Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino, the state constitutional officer in charge of overseeing state expenditures to make sure everything is in order, is under federal investigation in connection with possible misuse of his campaign funds.
A Mautino spokesman confirmed last week that the FBI is conducting an inquiry shortly after the Springfield-based Illinois Times reported that Mautino campaign workers have received subpoenas to appear in front of a federal grand jury.
Mautino was buffeted by disclosures almost immediately after taking office in January.
The former Spring Valley Democratic legislator and top lieutenant to House Speaker Michael Madigan weeks ago hired Springfield criminal lawyer Bill Roberts to represent him. But he has largely ignored inquiries involving his campaign funds from the news media, Republican legislators and the Illinois State Board of Elections.
The elections board, a largely toothless campaign spending watchdog, began its inquiry after the Edgar County Watchdogs and spending whistleblower Adam Andrzejewski examined at least 10 years of Mautino's campaign spending and raised questions about how the money was used.
Andrzejewski, who runs OpentheBooks.com, had previously called for Mautino's resignation because of the questions raised about his use of campaign funds.
He said Friday that "we feel gratified that law enforcement followed up on our oversight investigation."
Referring to the campaign spending practice of Mautino as well as other legislators, Andrzewjewski said "this (issue) actually goes in a lot of different directions."
He also said Mautino's legal predicament is not just a personal problem for Mautino but one for the state because of the important position Mautino holds.
He said that "without swift action by the Legislature" to force Mautino out, the operations of the auditor general's office could be compromised.
Legislative Republicans have been pressing Mautino for answers about his campaign spending practices while Democrats have remained silent. A Madigan spokesman said last week that Republicans are interested in the issue only for partisan reasons and that his boss has no opinion on the probe.
Two obvious issues for investigators to pursue involve roughly $500,000 in questionable spending — $200,000 that went for gasoline and car repairs at a service station owned by a Mautino political friend and another $300,000 paid to a Spring Valley bank for political services the bank doesn't provide.
Campaign records showed that Mautino spent more than $213,000 between March 2005 and December 2015 on fuel and repairs for his campaign vehicles. Mautino later said that multiple vehicles required repairs.
But the large sums of money spent and the frequency of the transactions are far from the norm.
For example, Mautino reported spending roughly $23,000 for vehicle repairs between April 2011 and January 2012. Then from March 2012 to May 2012, Mautino spent another $10,000-plus on vehicle repairs.
All the transactions were made at Happy's Super Service Station, a business owned by Mautino political associate and Spring Valley Alderman Fred West.
Although the investigation is in its early stages, the service station expenditures have the look of a kickback scheme.
And as for the bank transactions of roughly $300,000, Mautino's campaign records indicate they were for parking, travel and other expenses unrelated to banking.
Going even further, the Ottawa Times examined Mautino's expenditures for waste services and found that his $17,175 in payments for waste removal far exceed the requirement of a part-time, relatively small campaign office.
Among those Republicans seeking an explanation from Mautino is Sen. Jim Oberweis, a member of the legislative audit committee to which the auditor general reports.
"I pressed him at the last legislative audit hearing (for answers), and he said, 'Nobody want to answer those questions more than I do,'" Oberweis said.
He indicated that Mautino said he expected to provide necessary information to resolve the issue at a May 1 closed-door hearing before the elections board.
However, news reports indicate, a lawyer representing Mautino told the board at that meeting that it had no jurisdiction to review the matter because Mautino dissolved his campaign committee.
This past week, the elections board rejected Mautino's contention that it has no authority to review the matter and asked for explanations on the bank and gas station spending.
A veteran Democratic legislator, Mautino followed his father into politics.
When it became apparent last year that longtime Auditor General William Holland intended to step down, Mautino immediately announced his interest in the 10-year appointment as auditor general. Soon after, it became apparent that he was Speaker Madigan's choice for the post and that his appointment was a foregone conclusion.
Still, legislators went through the charade of conducing a nationwide search for Holland's successor before selecting Mautino.
Now it appears that being "Madigan's guy," as Oberweis described Mautino, had the catastrophic unintended consequences of him being the subject of a criminal investigation. That's because the watchdogs who turned up the questionable spending never would have examined Mautino's campaign spending reports if he had not been tapped as auditor general.
That might not be the only journalistic spinoff from the Mautino story. After the Edgar County Watchdogs reviewed Mautino's campaign spending, Illinois Times looked at how other legislators use — and possibly misuse — their campaign funds. It subsequently filed a long story filled with examples of spending that looks shady even by the standards of Illinois' intentionally vague rules governing how members of the General Assembly dispense campaign funds.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 217-351-5369.
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