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Court says Mautino campaign violated election code on travel expenses

Board of Elections will determine if further fines are in order

Two years after an initial elections complaint, an Appellate Court ruled Monday former state Rep. Frank Mautino's campaign committee further violated election codes.

The ruling stated the committee's expenses at a bank and at a Spring Valley gas station for gas and repairs of personal vehicles were violations.

Election code states gas and repairs of personal vehicles should be reimbursed through mileage reporting, and should not exceed fair market value. Between 1999 and 2015, the campaign committee reported $225,109.19 in expenditures to a Spring Valley gas station for gas and vehicle repairs.

"Now it's clear to any candidate in Illinois the way to handle vehicle expenses is through mileage, you can't just fill up people's gas tanks," said Jeffrey Schwab, an attorney at the Liberty Justice Center, representing Streator resident David Cooke, who brought forward the appeal.

The appellate court said the Board of Elections must now consider further fines. The now-defunct committee was fined $5,000 in May 2017 by the Illinois Board of Elections for failing to produce records. The fine has not been paid, as the committee has disbanded.

Regardless of how the elections board rules on fines, Schwab said the ruling was a victory. He said the appeal wasn't about fines, so much as setting a precedent for political campaigns and rooting out the potential for corruption.

"We're not saying Mautino's campaign was corrupt, but we are saying the manner in which they filled up gas tanks or took money from the bank to pay for expenses allows for the campaign to cover up things," Schwab said. "That's the whole reason we have the rules in the first place is to be able to account for the expenditures."

Mautino, now the state’s auditor general, represented La Salle County as a Democrat in the state Legislature for nearly a quarter century, until resigning to become auditor general in December 2015. The appointment to the post, which serves as a watchdog for the state’s tax dollars, is for 10 years.

The case went before the Illinois Fourth District Appellate Court in Springfield last month; the Illinois Board of Elections has avoided making findings in the case in respect to gas and vehicle expenses.

The case was brought back before the Illinois Board of Elections last year after the appellate court in Springfield ruled the board had to make a further decision on whether a pair of election codes were violated. That board then failed to rule on the merits of those codes after a tied vote. The four Republicans on the board voted the committee violated election code, while the four Democrats voted there wasn’t enough evidence to do so.

Members of the board voting against violations suggested they did so because the campaign didn't realize it was making the missteps.

Appellate judges ruled Monday the Board of Elections voted in error regarding the committee's practice of not using mileage reporting to reimburse personal vehicle expenses.

The court's ruling states the campaign committee did not own or lease any vehicles and made expenditures to Happy's Super Service in Spring Valley for gas and vehicle repairs. This evidence was clearly sufficient, according to appellate judges.

The court also ruled the committee's expenses were paid for beyond a fair market value.

Schwab argued when expenditures are not paid by an exact measurement such as reported mileage, it stands to reason some of the gas goes for personal use, because a whole tank of gas wouldn't be used exclusively for campaign activities, he said.

"Without needing to consider any possible adverse inference from Mautino's refusal to testify, we find the manner in which the committee paid for travel expenses over a 15-year period inevitably led to at least some portion of the cash being used for personal purposes," the appellate judges stated.

"By making expenditures to withdraw cash used for personal purposes, the committee made expenditures in excess of fair market value for what it received in exchange, which was nothing."

The court also noted it was a violation to take money from the bank for travel expenses specifically.

The court agreed with the Board of Elections that Cooke failed to establish evidence on the expenditures reported to the bank for general election-day expenses.

Schwab said the committee withdrew funds from the bank in whole dollar amounts for campaign expenses to undisclosed third parties, while not returning any of the withdrawn cash.

"Cooke focuses his argument on the expenditures reported to the bank for travel expenses. At no point does Cooke specifically address the expenditures reported to the bank for election-day expenses," according to the court ruling.

In regard to fines, judges said citing election code "the board may levy a fine on any person who knowingly makes expenditures in violation ... " The board must now address whether the violations were "knowingly committed in considering the matter of fines."

The Board of Elections may appeal the appellate ruling to the Supreme Court for further review. Its staff is reviewing the case and had no comment Tuesday, according to a spokesman.

Mautino had no comment, according to Ryan Keith, his spokesman in the matter.

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