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posted: 11/22/2011 5:00 AM

Editorial: Treasurer Rutherford steps too close to the line

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By The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Coincidence, says Merriam-Webster, is the occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection. According to state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, the fact that hundreds of brochures touting his office's successes happened to be mailed to major campaign donors is exactly that -- a coincidence. But is it really an accident that 723 of the 850 booklets went to business people and lobbyists who have contributed as much as $42,000 during the former state senator's political career? The apparent connection is unsettling.

Nobody would blink an eye if the slick, multipage brochures had been paid for from his own campaign account. Instead, the taxpayers of Illinois got the tab. It's illegal for anyone running for office -- from the governor on down to a village clerk -- to spend government money to seek election donations. Not that Rutherford overtly asked for donations for possible future campaigns. The mailer pointed to successes in his first six months in office and cited newspaper editorials' warnings against excessive borrowing.

Indeed, Rutherford has lived up to his campaign promise to use his statewide position to sound off against reckless spending. In addition, he has proposed legislation to combine the treasurer and comptroller offices, possibly eliminating his own job.

No, he wasn't seeking contributions in any direct kind of way. And there's nothing inherently wrong with sending out notice of the goings-on in a government office. But a state-paid mailing with information that trumpets nothing but positive vibes about a public official, and one that seemingly cherry picks its recipients from among interests that have financially supported the public official, is inappropriate. It comes too close to crossing ethical lines.

The Daily Herald's Kerry Lester reported that in the weeks following the June 1 mailing, Rutherford collected nearly $16,000 from among the 723 recipients. In addition, while 566 people who received the brochure had individually contributed a total of $1.6 million over two decades, another 181 were high-ranking officers in companies that had contributed nearly $900,000.

A treasurer's spokesman says Rutherford continually updates his list of business leaders for correspondence. "Any percentage that leans Republican or happen to be donors to any government official is merely a coincidence," Matt Butterfield told the Daily Herald earlier this fall.

Public work and campaign work are separate and should be kept so. In an age of increasing transparency, any elected official who dances close to the line is naive to think the public won't notice. The $1,432 cost for printing and mailing the brochures may seem a small sum, but the miscalculation on Rutherford's part looms large. Coincidence or not, as the man responsible for investing our state's money, Rutherford should think extra carefully about how he spends it.