Republican state Sen. Carole Pankau and her campaign staff are questioning the ethics of emails and a phone call made by Democrat and Villa Park Village President Tom Cullerton, her opponent in the 23rd District race.
Cullerton defends his actions, saying he made amends for one ethical "discrepancy" and acted properly in all other cases.
While researching Cullerton in advance of the Nov. 6 election, Pankau's campaign staff found two campaign-related emails and a phone call from Cullerton's municipal accounts that may indicate violations of ethics and campaign disclosure regulations.
The Daily Herald filed Freedom of Information Act requests for email and phone records of both candidates. Records confirm the three instances Pankau's campaign are questioning of email and phone use by Cullerton; there are no indications of any improper uses by Pankau.
Records for Cullerton's village of Villa Park email and cellphone show:
• An email Cullerton sent from his village address announcing his candidacy for the 23rd District state Senate seat.
• One reply to a Villa Park attorney's email providing information about a fundraiser and saying "you can contribute now if you like."
• And an 11-minute phone call March 26 from Cullerton's village cellphone to a number listed for 8th Congressional District candidate Tammy Duckworth's campaign.
Pankau said she sees the actions as lapses in ethics.
"I think it speaks to the larger issue of trust," Pankau said. "It's a small little thing, but it erodes that feeling of trust and ethics."
Cullerton said a couple emails should not be at issue in a state Senate race.
"Truly this is grasping for straws," Cullerton said. "To me, that would be a sign of desperation."
As Villa Park village president since 2009, Cullerton's actions are regulated by the village's municipal code. Its ethics ordinance prohibits certain political activities while on village time, including soliciting political contributions, distributing campaign material and campaigning for any elected office.
Cullerton said he noticed and made amends for one email he called a "discrepancy" in judgment. When a Villa Park attorney emailed his village address asking if she had missed information on a fundraiser, Cullerton responded saying she missed one event, but "you can contribute now if you like."
Cullerton said he consulted an attorney for review of state ethics statutes. He then returned $55 the attorney donated to his campaign.
He said his email announcing to trustees his run for state Senate was a proper use of his village address, as he used the note to provide personal contact information for future campaign communications.
"Due to campaign disclosure and all other rules this will be the only time I utilize my presidential email to give you all campaign information as this announcement is truly a board matter as well," Cullerton wrote.
The message also said Cullerton plans to finish out his term as village president if elected to the state Senate.
"My thought is that it makes sense to inform my board and everyone else of my intention so I was clear and open with them right from the get-go," Cullerton said.
He said he does not remember the 11-minute phone call records show he made from his village-issued cellphone to a number listed for Duckworth's campaign. Duckworth and Cullerton appeared together at a "Day of Action" event Oct. 6 hosted by Duckworth's campaign.
The Illinois State Board of Elections could be called on to review actions such as Cullerton's emails and phone call if a complaint is filed alleging a violation of campaign disclosure laws, said Jim Tenuto, the board's assistant executive director.
A section of the election code prohibits use of public funds or resources, such as a cellphone or email, for private purposes or to urge someone to vote for or against a candidate, Tenuto said. Cases involving possible misuse of public funds are rare among issues the state board of elections handles, he said.
Cullerton said Pankau's campaign is diverting attention from state problems by bringing up the email and cellphone use issue.
"With how much is going on in the state, to try and draw focus away from anything but creating jobs, fixing tax codes, fixing pensions, fixing Medicare is just ridiculous," he said.
Pankau has gone negative before, including in the spring primary when her campaign shared with Republican leaders a video of GOP state Rep. Randy Ramey's August 2011 DUI arrest that later was posted online. She doesn't deny bringing up negative points about opponents but said campaign research shows challengers' views on issues caused them to lose -- not demons from their past.
Pankau said she's not trying to draw attention from state issues by mentioning Cullerton's possible ethical missteps, but she is trying to establish herself as better suited to address them.
"The state has some really tough issues to tackle in the next general assembly -- pension reform, finances, balancing a budget and not spending more than we're taking in," Pankau said. "I have the political will ... I don't believe Tom Cullerton does. I believe he will do what he is told."
Cullerton said he will stick to his views on fiscal and social issues, even when they oppose the majority of Senate Democrats. He said he wants to focus the campaign on his record of promoting business and infrastructure development in Villa Park.
Cullerton, a 43-year-old route salesman for Hostess, is challenging Pankau, 65, of Itasca, in the Nov. 6 election to represent parts of Bartlett, Bloomingdale, Carol Stream, Itasca and Villa Park in the 23rd District.