COLUMN: 4 questions after Mautino ruling | Columnists

This week, former state Rep. Frank Mautino’s now-defunct campaign committee was fined $5,000 by the state elections board after it found he “willfully” violated its order to provide more information about his campaign spending.

That decision came more than a year after a Streator resident filed a complaint with the board, alleging Mautino misspent more than $400,000 in political money at a gas station and a bank.

Here are some questions you may have:

Why does it matter?

We’ve been covering Mautino’s travails for months. Some readers, though, wonder why the public is even concerned with how he spends his campaign money. It’s not taxpayer dollars, they say.

That’s true, of course. But the state should regulate campaign spending at least to some degree. As it is, powerful interests shower incumbent politicians with cash. If candidates could treat such donations as their own money, would corruption be that far down the road?

It’s no secret that a federal grand jury has been investigating Mautino. The IRS is listed on grand jury subpoenas; the agency is likely interested in whether Mautino essentially treated his campaign donations as his own income. If he did, he could be in deep trouble. We’ll see.

Are donors concerned?

With all of the questions over Mautino’s alleged misspending of campaign money, you’d think his donors would be outraged. Yet not one has come forward publicly to express anger. And that’s not surprising.

Typically, most of a state lawmaker’s donations come from powerful groups such as utilities and professional groups. They’re seeking influence, which is pretty obvious when they even donate to incumbents who face little or no opposition. Mautino received $438,000 in the 2010 election cycle, when he ran unopposed. In 2012, with token opposition, Mautino got $479,000. That’s even more than the $466,000 he received two years later, when he faced the toughest challenge of his political career.

Every election cycle, Mautino received a pile of money, regardless of his political situation. This is the case with most incumbents.

What about local folks?

Candidates love to say their constituents come first. And maybe they do.

But if you look at their campaign finance reports, you can see their political donors are usually from anywhere but their home districts. In the first quarter of this year, Rep. Jerry Long, R-Streator, and Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, received no contributions from inside their districts, but rather from other places, such as Chicago and its suburbs. Mautino also got no local contributions in his final quarter in 2016. This is the trend across Illinois and America.

What can we do about it?

I’ve scanned campaign finance reports for years, and it’s always disheartening. Can anyone really appreciate a system in which our politicians get nearly all of their cash from distant, powerful interests?

Few politicians like the campaign funding status quo, but even fewer have the wherewithal to change it. Ask your state and federal lawmakers how much of their political cash comes from local folks. If they’re honest, they’ll tell you hardly any. Then ask them if they’re fine with that kind of a system and inquire about potential solutions. 

I’ve interviewed U.S. Reps. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, and Cheri Bustos, R-East Moline, about their fundraising. I’ve asked state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, about all the contributions she receives from utilities, which is at a much greater level than most of her fellow senators.

These are uncomfortable conversations; politicians don’t like talking about their fundraising. But we as citizens need to ask the difficult questions. We must bring the issue to the forefront.

David Giuliani is a reporter for The Times. His weekly column “As It Is” expands upon regular news coverage by adding his insight and ideas. He can be reached at 815-431-4041 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @tt_dgiuliani.