David W. Cooke would like to talk, but he can't.
"I need to keep my attorney," he said, explaining that his lawyer told him to stay quiet if any reporters call.
Lots of people need lawyers for lots of reasons. But very few, if any, need a lawyer for the reason that the retired Exelon manager from Streator does.
In fact, the reason he needs a lawyer borders on the unbelievable. But this being Illinois, maybe it's not so hard to believe.
Being an honest, concerned citizen, Cook filed a complaint with the Illinois State Board of Elections in Springfield months ago after an oversight group, the Edgar County Watchdogs, reported a series of questionable campaign expenditures by Frank Mautino, the current state auditor general and a former Democratic state representative.
The group took a look at 10 years of Mautino campaign spending records and found roughly $500,000 in expenditures that stuck out like a sore thumb. They included $200,000 for car repairs and gasoline at a service station operated by one of Mautino's political associates, and $300,000 in payments to a Spring Valley bank for political services the bank doesn't provide.
It looks pretty fishy. That's why federal prosecutors have opened an investigation, creating the ironic situation of the man assigned to make sure tax dollars are properly spent being investigated for illegally spending campaign money.
Mautino, a former top lieutenant to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, has done his best to fend off inquiries. He initially promised to answer all questions before eventually invoking his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. He has hired prominent Springfield defense lawyer William Roberts, a former U.S. attorney and state's attorney in Sangamon County, to represent him.
It's not just federal investigators who have jurisdiction. The board of elections has a legal duty here, too. Campaign spending reports are filed with the office, and it has oversight responsibilities and the power to impose sanctions if it discovers wrongdoing.
At least that's the way things are supposed to work.
But the board doesn't take action until a citizen files a complaint. After Cooke filed his complaint, the board opened an inquiry, but then told Cooke last week that it's his job to investigate alleged improprieties and act as the prosecutor in the case.
That threw Cooke, at least temporarily, for a loss.
He said he doesn't have the professional expertise to launch this kind of investigation and can't afford the $50,000 to $100,000 it would take to hire a lawyer to do it for him.
"I told the board that I paid tax dollars for the board to do its job. That's where I'm being disenfranchised," Cooke told a reporter last week after the elections board gave him his new assignment.
Since then, however, the tables have turned.
Lawyers from the Liberty Justice Center, a Chicago-based public interest law firm, volunteered to represent Cooke in his role as a de facto prosecutor before a board hearing officer, and, if it gets that far, board members themselves.
"It's only going to happen to the extent a private citizen can pursue it," said Jacob Huebert, a senior attorney at the justice center. "Since no one else in state government is going to do it, we're going to do it."
Huebert acknowledged that it "doesn't make sense" for the elections board to require a private citizen to do the legwork this case requires. But he said campaign-disclosure laws "aren't much enforced and (passed) to create the illusion of good government instead of good government."
That's why Adam Andrzejewski, founder and CEO of watchdog group Open the Books, appeared before the board to question both its oversight role and its delegation of responsibility to Cooke.
"Why are you — the elections board — forcing a private citizen ... to prosecute this case on his own dime? ...This is a significant public policy issue: Do you really think this is the best way to 'enforce' Illinois election law?" Andrzejewski told them.
At least that's what Andrzejewski would have said if the board allowed him to speak. Instead, it scheduled public comments for the end of its meeting and, after voting to proceed with the Mautino inquiry, adjourned into an extended executive session. Andrzejewski left his statement to be entered into the record.
Afterward, he said the board's conduct has "unmasked very deep problems" at the agency.
Nonetheless, the case is going forward.
An administrative judge will hold a status hearing on the case Monday, and Huebert said he will seek approval to issue subpoenas and pursue discovery.
He said Mautino remains free to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights, but "that doesn't mean the people who received this money are going to be able to invoke it."
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at email@example.com or 217-351-5369.