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State’s top fiscal watchdog cleared after six-year battle over campaign finance violations finally resolved — for now

Frank Mautino headshot
Frank Mautino

Illinois’ elections oversight board on Tuesday voted unanimously to end years-long dispute over campaign finance violations committed by Auditor General Frank Mautino’s campaign committee before he became the state’s top fiscal watchdog.

The State Board of Elections ruled Mautino and his now-defunct campaign committee didn’t knowingly violate state campaign finance law during his two-decade tenure as a Democrat serving in the Illinois House. “Knowingly” was the key word the Illinois Supreme Court asked the board to hone in on as it once again considered the what’s left in a complaint first filed with the board nearly six years ago.

The state’s high court earlier this year gave Mautino a half-win in the case, finding there was no evidence his campaign committee paid more than fair market value for goods and services bought with campaign dollars. But the court did find Mautino’s campaign committee violated state law in spending nearly a quarter million dollars on fuel and repairs for his and his associates’ personal vehicles when they were performing political work. Instead, the committee should have reimbursed those performing campaign work for gas mileage.

Read more: State’s Top Fiscal Watchdog Misspent Nearly $250K In Campaign Funds, High Court Finds

Nearly six months after that ruling, the board on Tuesday took up the issue once more, hearing from Mautino’s attorney that he and the treasurer in charge of his former campaign committee didn’t knowingly violate state campaign finance law — and from an attorney arguing that they definitely did.

“We already know that the actions violated the law, it’s just a question of whether they were done knowingly,” attorney Jeffrey Schwab said. “And we have lots of evidence that they were.”

Schwab, of the libertarian-leaning Liberty Justice Center, represents a former constituent of Mautino’s who filed the initial complaint against Mautino’s campaign committee in early 2016, shortly after Mautino was elevated to auditor general. He pointed out that as a legislator, Mautino voted for the campaign finance law at the heart of the complaint. And beyond that, Schwab argued, being ignorant of the law or relying on an incorrect interpretation of the law doesn’t exonerate someone who acted illegally.

But Mautino’s attorney, Anthony Jacob, argued the state’s campaign finance statute is convoluted, and referred to a 2012 letter from a staffer at the State Board of Elections that Mautino’s counsel has long contended gave the committee cover. The letter instructed Mautino’s committee’s treasurer to list vendors instead of individuals who receive reimbursements from campaign cash.

“This matter’s been litigated for the last six years, OK?” Jacob told the board. “If it’s that clear, we wouldn’t have had six years of litigation where we’ve been up and down with the appellate court, supreme court deciding some matters in favor of the committee, some matters in favor of [Mautino’s former constituent, David Cooke].”

Board member William McGuffage agreed with Jacob. Slightly exasperated, the Democrat said at most, Mautino and his campaign committee treasurer were “unaware” of the particulars of the law.

“Although Mr. Schwab says the evidence is overwhelming…there’s nothing overwhelming about it,” McGuffage said. “You can’t have someone violating a law knowingly unless they know what the law requires. So I’m going to vote the same way that I voted the last several times on this matter, and I just hope it goes away this time.”

By the time Bill Cadigan, a Republican board member who has consistently voted against the interests of Mautino and his committee in previous hearings, cast his vote to dismiss the complaint, it was clear the rest of the board would do the same.

I agree that based on the record before us, the burden has not been met that a knowing violation — ”

But Cadigan’s final words were inaudible, as Cooke began laughing on the Zoom meeting where remote participants were watching.

“Oh, what a joke,” Cooke, who was not on mute, said to no one in particular.

Happy’s Super Service Station, watchdog vigilantes and a six-year saga

Mautino on Tuesday expressed gratitude the board voted in his favor, effectively ending nearly six years of legal and political posturing on the issue.

“We’re pleased with today’s outcome and the Board’s unanimous decision that the campaign committee did not knowingly violate the law on this issue,” Mautino said in a brief statement.

The ongoing case — which also resulted in a federal probe that hasn’t advanced in years — colored the early years of Mautino’s decade-long term as auditor general. But many Republicans who kept the issue alive by frequently calling for Mautino's resignation have moved on from state politics, and the cloud over Mautino has largely cleared even as the official case hadn’t.

Almost as soon as Mautino was sworn in as the state’s top fiscal watchdog in early 2016, a group dubbed the Edgar County Watchdogs published an in-depth look at Mautino’s campaign spending records, finding what they called “red flags” in the former lawmaker’s campaign spending history. They included campaign cash withdrawals and spending in round, whole numbers, along with nearly a quarter million dollars spent at a single gas station in Mautino’s hometown over the course of 17 years: Happy's Super Service Station in Spring Valley.

Those nearly 500 expenditures — $247,367.22 to be exact — date back to 1999, the first year certain campaign committees were required to electronically file spending and fundraising reports publicly accessible on the Board of Elections’ website.

Edgar County Watchdogs found it implausible that a campaign would incur nearly a quarter million dollars in fuel and vehicle repairs in just 17 years. The group published subsequent blog posts on Mautino, attracting the attention of media outlets and eventually Cooke, Mautino’s former constituent from Streator, who filed a citizen complaint about the campaign spending irregularities to the Board of Elections.

From there, the case has bounced from the board to appeals in the state’s Fourth District Appellate Court and the Illinois Supreme Court. In 2017, the board voted 6 - 2 to fine Mautino’s campaign committee $5,000 for failing to update financial disclosure reports after Cooke filed his complaint and the board requested additional receipts.

But the $5,000 was never paid, as it was levied against Mautino’s committee — a fund that zeroed out its balance and shuttered in late 2015 — and not against Mautino as an individual.

If the board had voted the other way on Tuesday, Mautino himself could have faced a hefty fine. Penalty language in state law provides for fines to individuals of up to $500 for each campaign finance violation of $500 or less. For violations of more than $500, even larger fines can be levied, calculated as up to the amount of each expenditure that violates the law, plus $500.

But Schwab told NPR Illinois he hadn’t spent the time thinking about what sort of fine he would have recommend to the board before Tuesday’s hearing.

In 2018, after the case’s first go-round in appellate court, the board deadlocked 4 - 4 over whether Mautino’s committee violated the law. Cooke appealed the case again, this time reaching the state supreme court, which ruled half in Mautino’s favor in May and instructing the Board of Elections to hear the case once more, which it did on Tuesday.

After the board’s decision, Schwab told NPR Illinois it’s too soon to know whether Cooke will appeal the matter again, but left the door open to extending the legal battle to a seventh year.

In the year’s he’s spent working on the case pro bono, Schwab said he’s less concerned with how clear or muddled Illinois’ campaign finance laws are — though he maintains Mautino’s violations were “pretty clear” — and is more disillusioned with the Board of Elections’ structure and process.

“A bipartisan board makes sense in the sense that you don’t want to have a completely partisan board,” Schwab said. “But on the other hand, when you have four and four, you have 4 - 4 decisions, which is what we had in this case before today.”

Hypothetical pizza and a moot point

During oral arguments in front of the Illinois Supreme Court in March, another attorney for Mautino’s campaign committee, Adam Vaught, said campaigns save money by paying for gas outright instead of paying out mileage reimbursements. It’s cheaper to buy a tank of gas for $30 before a 100-mile campaign-related trip, for example, than to reimburse the driver $56 for 100 miles traveled (at a 56-cent-per-mile reimbursement rate) — even if a small portion of that $30 tank of gas goes to personal travel.

Vaught warned the justices that upholding the appellate court’s ruling against Mautino would make following campaign finance laws tedious and at times impossible in the face of practicality.

"Leftover pizza could become a violation," Vaught said. "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.”

But the justices thought otherwise, setting the stage for Tuesday.

In the intervening months, however, Democrats who control the General Assembly have made adjustments to the state’s elections code, allowing for campaign spending on vehicles not owned or leased by the campaign committee, so long as those expenditures are related “to the use of the vehicle for primarily campaign purposes” or governmental duties. That change explicitly legalizes Mautino’s style of campaign spending on fuel and repairs to his and others’ personal vehicles.

The law was also changed to prohibit campaign committees from buying or leasing vehicles unless candidates can demonstrate they’ll be primarily used for campaign purposes or an elected official’s travel for governmental work. That change comes after federal grand jury earlier this year indicted former State Sen. Sam McCann (R-Plainview) on charges related to using more than $60,000 in campaign funds to lease an SUV and a truck he used for personal travel, and spending an additional $43,000 on two RVs he rented out for profit.

And on Monday, Gov. JB Pritzker signed a separate elections-related law that will effectively make it impossible for the Board of Elections to fine campaign committees for violations more than a year in the past.

Read more: Pritzker signs law banning dark money, out-of-state contributions in judicial campaigns 

“In its infinite wisdom, the Illinois General Assembly recently enacted legislation that cuts the statute of limitations on these matters to one year,” Cadigan, one of the GOP board members, said before casting his vote in the Mautino case Tuesday. “The diligence that [watchdogs] showed in this matter, and the media — even more diligence is going to be required moving forward…If these complaints aren’t brought within a year, they can’t be brought at all.”

Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving on to CNI in 2023.