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posted: 9/24/2011 4:00 AM

System broken for enforcing campaign finance rules

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By Daily Herald Editorial Board

What would you think if the Internal Revenue Service collected only 6 percent of the taxes citizens owed? Or if Metra conductors collected fares from only 6 percent of riders? Yet, Suburban Tax Watchdog Jake Griffin of the Daily Herald noted last week that's exactly what's happened historically at the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Since 1999, political candidates, including lawmakers, apparently have been breaking the law and getting away with it in many instances. Board members have found 13,000 campaign finance reporting violations and levied $21.5 million in fines, but only $1.2 million, or 5.8 percent, of those fines have been collected.

Is this really how we want our system to operate? We don't think so. It shouldn't continue this way in a state that for many years now essentially has been bankrupt. The taxpayers could have used that missing $20.3 million in fines.

And then there's the message that's been sent by this little-scrutinized board. What are we saying when John Barsanti, a former criminal prosecutor and now a Circuit Court judge, is found to have violated campaign laws and is fined $2,500 but appeals and pays nothing? The same goes for any number of lawmakers, including the campaign committees of Democratic state Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook and Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton. This is not partisan. Clearly, just about anybody can break the rules and escape stiff penalties.

Since 1999, Griffin reported, the highest percentage collected of fines was 13.4 percent in 2002 and the lowest was 2.4 percent in 1999.

State election officials said leniency is board policy. Appeals for first-time offenders are commonly granted. Fines are regularly reduced to 10 percent of what was levied. Campaign committees are let off free if no other violations are reported in the next two years.

We can understand a bit of grace granted to first-time offenders, but there's something wrong with a system that waits two years before collecting a fine for rule breaking.

Of all people, lawmakers and others who wish to serve, ought to be playing by the rules. In fact, they ought to be held to a higher standard, not a lower one. Griffin's report is the second look at a state board that seems to be operating less than efficiently. An earlier report on the state's executive ethics commission found its members have imposed fines totaling only $28,350 in seven years on state workers who broke rules.

It's time for these boards to start collecting the fines they impose. If board members think fines are too high, then they should impose lower ones or see to it that laws are changed. Engaging in a charade of imposing large fines, then inviting a drawn-out appeals process, only to collect a fraction of a fine is silly. Fines are meant to punish violators into playing by the rules. These fines seem like a joke that's just not funny.

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