In 2015, Illinois needed a new financial watchdog. Auditor General William Holland was in charge of scrutinizing public pocketbooks. But after more than two decades at the helm, he was finally stepping down.
He was the favorite of Springfield insiders who had worked with his father, a longtime House member like his son. He also was a bipartisan darling. Holland called Mautino "a man of great wisdom and dedication." Springfield chatterer Rich Miller heralded the news of his impending appointment: "He'll be a good choice …"
And they were right.
For more than a year, Mautino has been under fire for filing absurd campaign spending reports during his time as a lawmaker. His story is a shining example of the political arrogance that has brought the state to its knees.
Here's the spending in question. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.
First, Mautino's campaign spent more than $225,000 over 16 years at a single gas station.
A quick exercise: let's assume Mautino spent half the money on gas. Let's assume gas cost $3 a gallon and the car he filled up got 15 miles to the gallon. Mautino's spending would give enough fuel to drive more than 35,000 miles per year from 1999 to 2015. The circumference of Earth is less than 25,000 miles, and Mautino ran unopposed three times in that period.
Figure that one out.
The second bit of spending under review by the Illinois State Board of Elections involves checks cut to a local bank. Mautino had a practice of cashing campaign checks and then listing the bank as the recipient of the money, leaving him free to dole out the cash in the dark. He spent more than $150,000 this way.
At worst, these are reckless receipts of brazen corruption. At best, this is brutish bookkeeping that should disqualify Mautino from the position he currently holds.
That's right, he still hasn't stepped down.
Illinois' auditor-in-chief has refused to speak for over a year while under investigation for allegedly cooking his books. Even if he comes out of all this unscathed, how could anyone take his investigations seriously given Mautino's own shoddy accounting?
State Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, introduced a resolution calling for Mautino to resign last year. It got holed up in House Speaker Mike Madigan's
Rules Committee. Madigan said he believes Mautino — his former Deputy Majority Leader — will be vindicated and continue to work as the auditor general.
Of course, it's in the interest of most state lawmakers to hold their watchman over a barrel rather than push for his resignation. Leverage matters.
On May 1, counsel will file written statements in the case brought against Mautino at the Illinois State Board of Elections. The hearing officer is expected to file a recommendation by the end of the month. Mautino's office is also under federal investigation, but that's been kept under wraps.
So what's the lesson in all this mess?
First, near-unanimous agreement on a political appointment among state politicians and gossips means you should run for the hills. Greasing all the right palms is not a qualification you want in an auditor general.
There were plenty of clues that should have invited more skepticism before Mautino's appointment. That he was one of Madigan's made men alone should have been enough to disqualify him from an oversight position. Further, his family is a mainstay in the distributor business — an industry where political clout goes a long way.
It turns out those two pieces of trivia may be linked.
Data obtained by nonprofit Open the Books revealed that state agencies have paid more than $270,000 to Mautino Distributing Company — most of it after Madigan brought Mautino into a leadership role in 2009.
That brings us to the second lesson: In Illinois, concerned citizens often do a better job at rooting out corruption than government officials tasked with oversight.
The Edgar County Watchdogs, a group started by of a couple of downstate Illinoisans doing yeoman's work to keep government in check, first brought Mautino's campaign spending to light. When they presented their findings to the Illinois State Board of Elections, they found the agency still wouldn't take proactive steps to investigate Mautino. They needed a formal complaint. Thankfully, a man named David Cooke from Streator, Ill., stepped forward to take the hit. He enlisted the help of the nonprofit Liberty Justice Center, a sister organization of the Illinois Policy Institute, to argue on his behalf.
Frankly, Mautino's case is an embarrassment. Leaders in both parties should be calling for his resignation, and taking concrete steps to sharpen the teeth of government oversight.
Austin Berg, a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute,. wrote this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the Institute.