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Link: Illinois' financial watchdog finds himself embroiled in spending scandal of his own - Chicago Tribune

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Tucked along the main drag that runs through this tiny Illinois River town is an unassuming gas station where Auditor General Frank Mautino's now-defunct campaign fund reported spending more than $247,000 on fuel and car repairs over 16 years.

Ornamental duck figurines adorn antique-style fuel pumps outside Happy's Super Service & Food Mart, a convenience store with an attached auto shop now at the center of a federal investigation into Mautino's political spending during his time as a state lawmaker. The State Board of Elections also is looking at Mautino's accounting of campaign funds, questioning whether he properly disclosed where the money went and, in some cases, if the expenses were allowed.

The twin probes represent a rapid reversal of political fortune for Mautino, a Democrat whose colleagues in the General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in October 2015 to appoint him to a 10-year post as the state's top financial watchdog, praising him as a longtime public servant whose character was beyond reproach.

The lingering issue, which could get aired publicly in 2017, has resulted in a situation unusual even in corruption-plagued Illinois: the very person who is supposed to make sure state tax dollars are spent prudently is embroiled in a spending scandal of his own.

"These kind of watchdogs ... they need to have very strong moral authority," said Chris Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. "They have legal authority, but they don't have too much enforcement power, in general. They do a thankless task - they're going around trying to find problems, and no one in the agencies likes it when they show up."

Mautino, who has said little publicly about the probes, declined comment through a spokesman.

The expenses in question went unnoticed until Mautino's 24-year career as an Illinois House member came to an end and he'd closed his campaign account. Around the time Mautino took the helm at the auditor general's office last January, a Downstate group known as the Edgar County Watchdogs first raised questions about his financial disclosures, asking why the campaign fund had reported spending so much money on gas and vehicle repairs.

At the time, Mautino issued a statement through a spokesman that contended the reports "fully detail campaign expenditures that were made to help defray the standard, reasonable expenses incurred while Frank performed the governmental and public service duties of serving as state representative of his large, mostly rural district."

That explanation didn't satisfy Streator resident David Cooke, who wondered why state election officials weren't looking into the matter. Cooke, a 57-year-old retired former nuclear power plant worker who served 12 years on a local school board, learned that the State Board of Elections would initiate an investigation only if a complaint was filed.

"I thought, who's going to file a complaint and what happens if no one files a complaint?" Cooke told the Tribune. "They take no independent action? That was my fear. So I thought, it can't be that hard. It's really a fairly simple process."

Cooke filed a state complaint in February. Since then, Mautino's attorneys have disclosed to the elections board that a federal criminal investigation is underway involving "the same subject matter." As such, Mautino's camp has argued that the state should set aside Cooke's complaint, but the elections board has denied that request.

Pushing the issue turned out to be more complex and time-consuming than Cooke anticipated, and he's gotten help from a nonprofit legal center affiliated with a conservative think tank tied to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Back in March, Cooke attended a preliminary, closed-door hearing with Mautino's attorney. An elections board hearing officer concluded there was enough to the complaint to proceed to a public hearing. That meant Cooke would be able to issue subpoenas to Mautino and others to try to find out more about how the campaign funds were spent and accounted for. But a public hearing is still months away - lawyers for Cooke and Mautino aren't due back to the elections board until early February, when they're expected to push the matter further down the calendar.

Cooke's complaint also detailed more than 100 expenditures to Happy's and Spring Valley City Bank, a hulking brick building down the road from the gas station, where Mautino kept his campaign funds. Between 1999 and 2015, Mautino's campaign listed the bank as the recipient of expenditures for activities like get-out-the-vote efforts and travel expenses - items not typically attributed to a bank because election rules require disclosure of the ultimate recipient of campaign funds.

Specifically, Cooke questioned $30,000 worth of expenditures to the bank, including a 2000 payment of $8,000 listed as for "election expenses."

Of the payments to Happy's, 53 expenditures were listed as "repair camp vehicles/gas" for a total of $18,985 from 1999 through 2002, according to Cooke's complaint. "It is extremely questionable for 53 times in a 4-year period a vehicle would need both repairs and gasoline each time," Cooke reasoned.

Approached by a Tribune reporter, several attendants at Happy's said they were aware of the matter but declined to comment further.

The Tribune reviewed campaign finance reports from 1999, the earliest year for which electronic paperwork is available, to 2015, when Mautino closed the political account. The reports showed the campaign fund reported spending $22,172 on expenditures at Happy's that were listed only as gas purchases, and $224,509 on charges at Happy's that were listed as a combination of both gas and vehicle repairs.

Broken down by years, the reports show a climb in gas and repair expenditures, from $3,630 in 1999 to a peak of $28,588 in 2011. By way of example, that year Mautino's campaign fund reported spending $2,367 on Jan. 18, an additional $1,697 on Feb. 17 and $3,615 on April 12.

Cooke argued that the records were not detailed enough to explain the types and costs of the repairs, and noted that gas and repair expenses are allowed to be billed to a campaign committee only for vehicles owned or leased by the campaign. The elections board hearing officer agreed the reports left questions unanswered.

"At a minimum, the expenditures to Happy's Super Service lack sufficient detail and a breakdown between gas and repairs as to vehicles is required," hearing examiner James Tenuto wrote in a report to the board. "Furthermore, the report should clarify whether the vehicles are owned and/or leased by the respondent, or are private vehicles."

Tenuto also wanted to know who was the beneficiary of expenditures to Spring Valley City Bank listed as "elections expenditures" and "for volunteers."

At the end of April, a 60-day deadline was recommended for Mautino to amend his reports or face questioning at a public hearing. Mautino's lawyers have tried to halt the hearing until after the federal investigation had concluded. Mautino is still seeking intervention from a state appellate court, but in November that court denied an emergency motion that would have put the state board probe on hold.

While Mautino was working to halt the inquiry, Cooke started shopping around for lawyers and reaching out to people like Dan Proft, a conservative talk-show host and Republican political operative.

Cooke said eventually he was approached by the Liberty Justice Center, a not-for-profit affiliated with the Illinois Policy Institute - a conservative think tank that received more than $500,000 in donations from Rauner when he was a private citizen. The law center typically takes on causes "to protect constitutional rights and enforce limits of government power," said Jacob Huebert, an attorney there. The group decided to take on Cooke's complaint even though, as Huebert acknowledged, the subject matter was "a little unusual" for an organization that's focused on issues of constitutionality.

"Citizens of Illinois have a very strong interest in knowing if their auditor general, who is in charge of making sure that the state is spending money properly, broke laws," Huebert said.

The stakes for the auditor general are high - not only is his reputation on the line, so is his family legacy. The Mautino name is king in Spring Valley, which sits on the northern bank of the Illinois River about 13 miles west of Starved Rock State Park. Mautino inherited the state House seat that includes Spring Valley and neighboring Peru from his father, Richard Mautino, who held it for 16 years before he died in 1991. Around the corner from Happy's sits a town library named for the elder Mautino. A portion of the north-south route that connects the town to Interstate 80 is called Richard Mautino Memorial Drive.

Over the summer, a group of House Republicans called for Mautino to step down, saying it's improper for the state's top watchdog to be embroiled in a campaign spending issue.

"All citizens of Illinois, as well as every member of the General Assembly, has a tacit right to be able to trust and have full faith in the office of the auditor general," said Republican Rep. Dwight Kay of Glen Carbon, who lost a re-election bid in November. "Illinoisans deserve a clean government, and Auditor General Mautino has done nothing to suggest that he's up to that task."

Adding fuel to the matter was the silence of Mautino, whose position as auditor general is answerable to the General Assembly. The Republican lawmakers complained that despite repeatedly requesting explanations from Mautino about the campaign spending issues, he refused to respond. Rauner, however, has tried to stay out of the fight, saying he wants to let the investigation process "play itself out."

Cooke, whose complaint has propelled the state inquiry, described his political views as conservative but said it wasn't partisan politics that motivated him to push the issue. Cooke said he could imagine his former colleagues at the power plant paying into a campaign fund to support Mautino when he was running for re-election.

"It just galled me that you have people that don't make a lot of money and they go to their fundraisers and they might buy a $25 or a $50 ticket," Cooke said. "These people believe in you. It's the general principle, you have to disclose where it goes. You can't use it as your own piggy bank."

kgeiger@chicagotribune.com Twitter @kimgeiger